The New Jersey Devils opened up the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs down 3-1. The third was a continuation of the Devils' second period with less defensive miscues and even less creativity on offense. The Leafs hung back, and why not? They were in great position to stop the Devils' puck movement in all three zones. They kept the Devils offense, what little of it there was, to the side. The Devils looked out of sync and quite lethargic.
And then, somehow, someway, with just under four minutes left in the game - just when you think the Devils are done again and you felt that at least they weren't shutout but that was awful - Dean McAmmond happened. Dean McAmmond and his 37 year old body, powered through the zone with a hardiness that can only come from a journeyman hockey player, took the pass from Vladimir Zharkov, and found the right angle to beat Jonas Gustavsson on a backhand.
No, it didn't tie the game up. No, it didn't win the game. What it did was give the Devils - the players, the coaches, the fans - something to get excited for, something to be happy about. It was a lifeline and the Devils transformed into the team that we saw come from behind in so many games. The offense suddenly was revived and smelled blood. The defense became sensible and willing to help on the attack without conceding position. And the Devils got the gift of a power play - a necessary trip by Alexei Ponikarovsky - and cashed-in when Travis Zajac dropped a bomb through traffic and Gustavsson. Tie game and in the dying seconds, the Devils got the puck deep again. Mike Mottau decided to attempt to redeem himself, he was open, the puck came to him, and drilled a shot on net. Gustavsson had to slide to stop it, but the force of the shot caused the puck to bounce right out to his flank. Who would get there? Jay Pandolfo. He, of the many scoring chances wasted. He, the man I used to derisively call the "Goal Scoring Machine" because he did everything but that. He, of the great defensive forward but tepid offensive forward. He put it in. The Devils went up and the game was just about killing 19 seconds - which they did perfectly.
In under 4 minutes in the third period, what could have been, no, what should have been an easy Leafs victory, turned into a Devils win. Did the Devils deserve it? Given their overall performance, absolutely not. But am I glad they did? You bet. Honestly, this could turn out to be the biggest win since October 8, 2009, when Zajac scored that last-second equalizer and the Devils went on to win their first of the season in the shootout against Tampa Bay. This could be a win where the Devils feel good and start to turn it around, just like that one got the team going in October. As for now, like many Devils fans, I just have a stupid, stunned grin on my face and it just won't go away.
My further thoughts are below after the jump, including thoughts on Ilya Kovalchuk's and Anssi Salmela's debuts along with criticism and praise. For just the stats, NHL.com has their recap up with links to the box score and the event summary. As for the opposition Leafs fans, well, they're already thinking about tomorrow. Pension Plan Puppets will have a recap up later, but for now their post-game reaction thread sentiment seems to be focused on wanting to snap the Ottawa Senators' hot streak tomorrow night.
Let's get the debuts out of the way. Ilya Kovalchuk. He looked a little nervous at times, but as the game went on, you noticed how he moved, how he shifted around from end to end. The man must be tired, he played the second most minutes than any Devils skater with 21:43 and averaged 1:02 per shift. Nevertheless, once he settles in with the team, knows his linemates a little better, he's going to be lethal. Even tonight, you can see how strong he is at passing the puck, how good his vision is. I mean, sure, he only got one shot on net, but he set up Dainius Zubrus' goal and Travis Zajac's game-tying goal on the power play. Once he settles in, Devils fans are going to love him. So I'd say he had a good debut.
Anssi Salmela, on the other hand, did not. Jacques Lemaire must have wanted to see what he could do because he just kept giving him shift after shift after shift. Salmela, believe it or not, played 19:59. He played more than Mark Fraser (14:36), Colin White (18:55), Bryce Salvador (19:02 and by far the best defenseman in a Devils uniform tonight), and Andy Greene (19:53). I am not making this up. Salmela, from my vantage point, was trying too hard to do more than he should have and ended up not doing well at what he wanted. A good number of his clearances were blocked or didn't get out the zone. He pinched in far too much in the first two periods and got caught out of position. Maybe Lemaire really likes his potential, but there's no way he should be playing close to 20 minutes in his current state. Salmela needs to play calmer, smarter, and bigger if he's going to get those minutes.
In fact, that's a nice segue into the defense for tonight. Bryce Salvador was solid. Mark Fraser was OK. Everyone else: BLERRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH. Right from the start of the game, the defense tried to get the puck forward and it got blocked, leading to a Toronto possession. All throughout the night save for the final four minutes of the game, the defense (and Martin Brodeur) had so many botched clearances and passes, it was sickening. The breakout was inconsistent at best. The Devils defense pretty much added to Toronto's offense so much that I'm amazed they only scored three goals. You can sit there and tell me that Mike Mottau is horrible or that Mike Mottau is abysmal or that Mike Mottau is a bad defenseman who makes bad plays; but when even Andy Greene is struggling to get the puck past a stationary Leaf on the blueline, you can point fingers all you want, but it's a problem with the unit. Lou's not trading for 5-6 defensemen. They need to sort it out themselves.
Maybe that's why Salmela played so much? In any case, an increasing complaint in recent games is about how Lemaire is jumbling up the lines so much. Personally, I think it's defensible on the basis that if no one is playing well, then it makes little sense to keep the status quo until you find a group that works to some degree. That's why for much of the second and third periods, the lines were mixed up. Though I'm sure a fourth line of Andrew Peters, Dean McAmmond, and Pierre-Luc Leblond-Letourneau (which honestly wasn't terrible, but didn't do a whole lot outside of drawing a call and a few hits) as well as a shiny new sniper named Kovalchuk contributed to the experimentation. Besides, if it wasn't for the mixing of lines, would we have had that all important lifeline goal from McAmmond? No, we wouldn't. Until the team as a whole plays better more consistently, the lines are going to be changed in my view. Feel free to disagree, but I think that's understandable.
Either way, the team as a whole was terrible in the second period and before McAmmond's backhand goal in the third period, I thought I was watching the same game from Tuesday. No passion, no desire, no fire, and it was happening after an actually decent and even first period, where Dainius Zubrus' individual effort in the slot made a goal happen. Big Z is real tough to stop when he fully exerts himself; imagine a boulder coming down a hill. The two Leafs by him couldn't stop him. Gustavsson, in retrospect, had no real chance. Zubrus wanted it more and got it. His moment of the night and it still shines.
But for the second period and 75% of the third? Just miserable hockey from the Devils. Offense? What offense? The Devils shots on net were mostly weak and easy to stop, the Leafs defense stood up real well to the attack. They were in near-perfect position to get a block, stop a pass, or just get the puck back. They even dropped into a 1-2-2 real nicely in the third period. The Devils' defense was atrocious looking in their own zone, and it's a wonder why Toronto didn't forecheck more aggressively or make more quick-shots on net from turnovers. They could have easily had more than 20 shots on net, they maybe could have scored more than 3 goals, why did they not pursue the Devils with more hunger? The penalty kill got burned twice (I thought Tomas Kaberle's shot was tipped, but I thought wrong, still a shot through traffic, not as bad as the other two given up) though I maintain the interference call on Kovalchuk was absolute garbage as he was picked by a Leaf in the neutral zone. Still, the normally solid Martin Brodeur let in a soft goal, on a power play to Lee Stempniak right through Brodeur's five-hole. Come now, four days off and your legs are that wide open? You got to do better on those, Marty. (admittedly, he was in the third on each of Toronto's five shots on net)
You can almost make the same criticism about Rickard Wallin's first NHL goal and Toronto's third of the period, though I feel criticism on that should really go to Colin White and Jamie Langenbrunner, who gave the Rock and all the viewers and listeners a perfect example of comedy defending. In that, Leafs fans must have been in hysterics that three Devils essentially skated over the puck, got in each other's way, and left the puck just sitting there as a gift for Wallin. There shouldn't have been a shot. Blame White, and blame Langenbrunner. One of the worst goals given up all season. It's also probably a perfect example of why White frustrates Devils fans so much, especially when it's usually his usual partner Mottau who makes the giant mistake.
If you're wondering, what about Mike Mottau? Well, if you don't like him, you're hating the fact he had the most ice time with 22:03. His most shameful moment was Stempniak just taking the puck right from him on the half-boards, on the power play where Stempniak scored. Mottau just had to fire it hard, but no, Stempniak just took it easily. No fight, no issue. The sad thing is that Mottau's whole night was good plays followed by bad plays. Yes, he had two assists, yes he was the one of the two men who made the rebound happen for Pandolfo. He still needs to play better, by which, I mean use his brain. The same could be said for White, Greene, and Salmela, too.
Let's go back to positives. Pandolfo. He had 5 shots on net. 5! And he was robbed on one of those, too, by Gustavsson. He really looked up for playing tonight, he hustled real well, he went into the corners strong, and he backchecked well as usual. Of course, there was the game winner, but he really did have a good night all along. (By the way, per ILWT user FrankG929, the Devils are 4-0 when Pandolfo scores a goal this season. And that's not a coincidence; 3 of Pandolfo's 4 goals are game winning goals this season, including this one.)
Vladimir Zharkov had a strong game. His skating was quick and with purpose, and he looked real hungry out there. On the Devils' first power play, he nearly got his first NHL goal when he was found just off the high slot, but he roofed the shot too high. He banged his stick in frustration, but he didn't let it bother him. He kept pressing on, even when the Devils looked bleak for much of the game, and made the important pass to McAmmond for that important goal. He's still without a goal to his name this season, but he's not useless on the ice - not when he's playing like this.
Zajac and Parise had pretty good games, in my view. Zajac only got one shot on net, but it went in, so here's to efficiency. Huzzah. He was more of a play-making role tonight, and a big reason why Parise put 5 shots on Gustavsson. Zajac was very good on faceoffs, winning 12 out of 20. Parise challenged Leafs head on, forced two big saves from Gustavsson, but he wasn't nearly as dominant as he was last week. Then again, both teams were quite different last week.
Also, the Leafs played quite well. I wouldn't say they outplayed the Devils for 56-57 minutes. Per Gulitti, Lemaire said he wasn't happy with the first 57 minutes of the game and he has every right to be unhappy about it. But I felt the first period was even, so strike that down to 37 minutes of the game where the Leafs basically owned the Devils. Not that the Devils were putting much of a fight either, and to me, that's more disappointing considering most of the players tonight played on Tuesday wherein they got beaten on decisively by Toronto. But whether you think it was 37 or 57, the point is the same, the Devils were not the better team on the ice for most of the game.
I can't help but think, what would have happened if the Leafs kept attacking, forcing a turnover-prone defense to turn the puck over more? Would the Devils have had the chance to win? Leafs fans should honestly question this. Yes, the Devils were incredibly lucky in many ways to score 3 goals in less than 4 minutes; but it wouldn't have happened if the Leafs weren't in cruise control 15 minutes into the third period. I mean, sure, the Devils were flaccid, I understand the (lack of) motivation; but tonight was a perfect example of how it's a 60 minute game.
As for New Jersey, the larger questions should be the following: How can the defense not play so panicky and poorly on clearances? How can the offense avoid slipping into malaise in games? How can the Devils start periods strong or at least go into a lull for periods at a time? Because as great as tonight's win was, as much of a big confidence boost this win could and should be, as happy as Devils fans are that it was a win at all, we'd be foolish to expect it on a regular basis.
The Devils won a game they absolutely had no business winning based on their performance. I would have gladly taken a point, even. Thankfully, they got it together and just shocked everyone watching the game around the world with three goals in less than four minutes. That it took so long for them to try and make up the deficit was poor, but I'm thrilled that they made a strong attempt at it late and succeeded. That is the biggest positive from tonight's game, every Devil should feel like they can come back from anything, in my opinion. A big confidence boost before a rivalry game against the Rangers on Saturday.
Here's the video highlights of the game from NHL.com, in case you need a refresher on how it all went down:
Thanks to Steve for the GameThread, and I thank you all for reading and commenting. A preview for tomorrow night's Devils-Rangers game will come in the morning or early afternoon. Please leave all your thoughts, concerns, complaints, and other feelings about tonight's win in the comments.