Back on January 12, 2010, the New Jersey Devils picked up a 1-0 shootout win over the New York Rangers. The win was after their last official game on January 9, a 2-1 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens. Since January 12, the Devils have not won two games in a row. Until tonight.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1. The Devils handed the Pittsburgh Penguins their first loss in regulation since February 6, 2010. This win comes after a 6-3 win over Our Hated Rivals on Wednesday. It's been two long months, but they finally won two games in a row. Perhaps this is a sign - finally, a sign - that the Devils may have turned the corner.
What struck me the most about this game was how it was reminiscent of a playoff game. Yes, it was only a regular season game, but both teams really let everything fly. Emotions flared. Intensity went up and down the rink. The crowd was into it from minute #1 right until minute #60. Players who tried to take liberties with others got squashed by their teammates. There were hits, ill-advised penalties, and even Jamie Langenbrunner running Chris Kunitz into his own bench after Kunitz tried to start something with Ilya Kovalchuk. Skaters had chances, goaltenders played very well to deny them most of those chances, and ultimately the Devils got the benefit of the breaks and kept Pittsburgh down.
Was it the most perfect game by the Devils? No. Like Wednesday's game, there is plenty to criticize. But was it a performance filled with heart and tenacity? You bet. I can say that it's not just two wins in a row, but two at-least-decent performances by the team. NHL.com has their recap up complete with the official stats for the game. Over at PensBurgh, new writer JustinM isn't pleased with how the game was called nor how the Penguins performed. I don't know if I agree that Evgeni Malkin didn't really show up to play - he had 4 shots and tried to fight Rob Niedermayer at one point (I think it was Niedermayer at least). Though, he wasn't much of a factor. Read on after the jump for my further thoughts on the game.
First, check out the highlights to the game with this video from NHL.com:
Let's address what I'm sure will be a controversy over the next day: the Ilya Kovalchuk goal. The goal was the third one in the game and as it turned out, it had no bearing on the final result. It didn't kill off Pittsburgh's chances, but they never answered Andy Greene's second goal to make it anymore than an insurance goal. Per the video, it appears to me that Travis Zajac might have clipped Marc-Andre Fleury's glove prior to Kovalchuk's shot. The shot beat Fleury glove side; therefore, it must have been interference, right? Well, I've watched the goal itself on video over and over and I'm completely convinced that Zajac got enough on Fleury's glove to make a difference. The Penguins commentators certainly weren't.
But who cares about my opinion or the opinion of the Penguins' commentators? According to Tom Gulitti's post here, Zajac did admit that he did get a piece of his glove. By that admission, the Penguins and their fans have a legitimate complaint. Still, it doesn't matter as user FrankG29 pointed out in the GameThread, Rule 69.1 states clearly that goalie interference can't be reviewed by tape. So it's not like the goal was going to be discounted. And again, the goal didn't mean much in the game.
So I feel bad for the Penguins fans in that regard who feel they were wronged, but I feel the most badly for Marc-Andre Fleury. He played as well as you could have expected tonight and what beat him? A rebound goal by Patrik Elias, who no Penguin picked up on him. A rebound goal by Andy Greene that was such a piledriver of a shot, I don't think he could recreate that shot if you gave him a 100 chances. Again, he was left open on the flank. And then on the Kovalchuk goal, Ilya kept the puck in play, turned, and fired it perfectly - Zajac interference or not. Not exactly shots you could fully fault Fleury on and I don't think you should. He robbed the Devils numerous times, especially in the second period where turned away all 19 shots including a penalty shot. Fleury showed up for this one and ended up with three against.
However, the better goaltender tonight was truly Mr. Martin Brodeur. The only goal he gave up was soft, a five-hole concession to Mr. Sidney Crosby. Yet from then on, Brodeur was on fire. Gloves saves, pad saves, stick saves, cross-crease saves, all kinds of saves. Did he benefit from some poor finishing by the Penguins? Sure. Did he get lucky on a few of those loose pucks in traffic? Probably. All the same, he came up big when the Penguins offense exerted their muscle - especially in the third period with 15 shots on net. I'm not killing the Devils' defense because they played as well as they could, it was mostly Pittsburgh forcing the plays to happen, but Brodeur wasn't having it. There were spontaneously loud chants near the end of the third of "Marty!" and "Marty's Better" because he truly excelled tonight.
Going back to criticism, what didn't excel was the power play for either team. Yes, both goalies had something to do with it; but each team just struggled to set something up most of the time. The Penguins giftwrapped most of the power plays for the Devils, most notably the dangerous and utterly stupid (it was after a whistle!) late hit from behind by Craig Adams on Martin Skoula that led to a major and a game misconduct and Mike Rupp's slash on Martin Brodeur after he covered the puck. 7 minutes of power play time and the Devils did very little with it.
Overall, the Devils did manage to put 8 shots on net on their 4 power plays; yet I'm more concerned with the lack of consistent offensive pressure on those power plays. It's one thing to not score on them, but it's another if the other team keeps clearing pucks over and over. That's why the fans were understandably unhappy with the 5 minute power play; it was a chance to really put the screws to the Penguins and at 1-1 and they didn't even take it.
The only positive I can find in that is that the Devils didn't sulk after not converting on those power plays. In fact, they played better after them. That shows a lot of character. Yet, I think we all would like to see a more threatening power play.
The same could be said for Pittsburgh's power play, truth be told. Their best power play came late in the third period and Jordan Staal nearly converted only to be robbed by, guess who, Martin Brodeur. Yet, they only mustered 5 shots in total and the Devils killed their other 4 power plays with ease. Both teams wasted chances, really.
But the Devils were more egregious in wasting their chances. Penguins fans can point to Brodeur for being the big reason for not scoring on what would otherwise be great chances to score. The Devils go out and put 19 shots on Fleury in the second period, have multiple power plays, even draw a penalty shot after Fleury stops a breakaway and at the end of it all - it was a scoreless period. Honestly, I was worried that the Devils would pay the price. That the Penguins escaping the period at 1-1 would lead them to rise up in the third period.
Of course, that didn't happen. Bizarrely, I think Pittsburgh's approach to try and intimidate the Devils backfired as the team really came together and put out strong efforts. I'm not saying that all that the Devils did physically was smart; but they came out stronger instead of thrown off their game. As a result, there's a lot of praise to be had: Ilya Kovalchuk was backchecking a little late in the game and then race down ice to keep a puck from being called for icing to burn off more time. The third line didn't pick up any points, but they looked strong around the boards all night long - helping wear down the Penguins' defense. Rod Pelley and Dean McAmmond were getting shifts late in the third period. In fact, McAmmond was the best Devil at the dot, going 7-for-8 as the only center to do better than 50%.
Brodeur was doing the best he could and it was massive; but the defense wasn't invisible despite allowing 35 shots on net. Mike Mottau (4 blocks!) and Andy Greene (4 hits!) had some of their best games in their own zone in a while; they both played big along the boards and smart in space. Greene especially stuck out with 3 shots on net, 5 that missed, 1 of those misses turning into Elias' goal and 1 of those shots being an absolute beauty. I will also say that Crosby and Malkin, while contributed to the game, didn't do a whole lot meaningful after Crosby's early goal. That's a big compliment for the defense given what those two are capable of on the ice.
Of them all, I'd have to say I was most impressed with Kovalchuk. I mean, he didn't start off the game all that great. On the Devils' first power play, he tried to passa puck to Brian Rolston at the blueline that got picked off by a Pen and he had to chase him down to prevent a breakaway (which he did to his credit). He didn't score on a breakaway, drew a penalty shot from it (thanks, Kris Letang), and didn't convert on that either. He didn't look good on the power play in the second period. Did it bother him? It certainly didn't look like it on the ice. His speed picked up, his desire became more apparent, and he played like a monster in the third period. He finished the game with a goal, two assists (he set up Greene for his miss; his shot led to the rebound Greene scored on), and 7 shots on net. The Devils may have only put 5 shots on net in the third, but Kovalchuk was a big factor in keeping the Pens honest in their own end as they scrambled to answer New Jersey's goals.
Do the Devils need to improve on their power play? Sure. Were they fortunate that Brodeur played out of his mind at times? As much as the Penguins benefited from the strong play of Fleury, I'd say. Still, the performance did have a lot of positives; they shut the door on a top team on their own ice even after a second period where they didn't make the most of their chances. Now, they are 5-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and only two points behind them with two games in hand in the Atlantic. More importantly than that, they earned two deserved wins in a row. Devils fans should be happy with the final score.
Can they rest? Of course not. The Devils need to be especially careful that this game doesn't lead to a letdown on Long Island tomorrow. If they can put up a good performance tomorrow, pick up a win on the road, then the Devils would make big strides towards putting their slump to rest.
Thanks for reading. Thanks to Steve for the GameThread. Please leave all your thoughts, feelings, complaints, and criticisms in the comments. But again, let's not get cocky, the Islanders await on Saturday.