I said this game was a must win and on that basis alone, tonight was an unqualified success. The New Jersey Devils defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-3 to tie up the series at 1 game apiece. The Prudential Center was rocking from the first minute, went into some short lulls when the Flyers scored, but the Devils gave them a reason to get happy in the stands throughout the game.
The Devils improved a little bit with respect to patience with the puck - something I stressed on Thursday as a "must improve" for the Devils - and the results speak for themselves. New Jersey attempted only more shot tonight than they did in Game 1, but they got more shots on net. They were blocked 10 times, they missed the net 12 times, and forced 33 shots on Brian Boucher. Across three power plays, the Devils got 7 shots on net - including a goal that proves why a team should never just freely shoot the puck. The team generally improved in regard to shooting because they weren't rushing as much; and I think it helped them win this game.
In terms of a Devil, let's praise Zach Parise heavily. He was raring to go right from the beginning. In addition to his normal and power play duties, he was killing penalties and scored an absolute world-class goal to draw first blood. He took the shot that Dainius Zubrus touched up to win the game in the slot. He was all over the place down low, not letting the likes of Chris Pronger and Mike Richards intimidate him. When the third period came around, Parise was among the first to be double-shifte. Parise put up 6 shots on net, played 20:06, and I hope this is the start of something good for the Devils in the postseason.
All Devils fans naturally hope this game will be the start of something good. The crowd was elated when Ilya Kovalchuk scored that empty net goal and everyone was pumped leaving the arena into the drizzled night of Newark. Needless to say, a win will make people feel good. Not to sound like Captain Bring-Down but the Devils win didn't come without their own share of problems. Moreover, the series isn't completely flipped: the Devils will need to get something in Philadelphia to truly make this series their own again. But with tonight's win, I can't blame you if you think it's much more possible now.
For the official stats and a neutral recap, please check out this recap at NHL.com. If you're interested in how the Flyers fans reacted to tonight's game, Ben Rothenberg has this recap at Broad Street Hockey. I swear I'm not making that up. For my additional thoughts on tonight's game, please continue after the jump.
In general, I felt this was a bit of a roller coaster of a game, largely in part to the Devils' penalty troubles. Yes, tonight's game did feature Chris Pronger holding Zach Parise's stick after Parise actually checked Pronger pretty hard; and Mike Richards punching Parise in the head after a whistle during the Devils 4-on-3 power play in front of the ref without any kind of call. Yes, the refs missed a lot of calls on both sides. Yes, Tom Gulitti was absolutely right about the non-calls and this Jacques Lemaire quote is entirely appropriate:
When I asked Lemaire if he was confused by the calls, he initially just said, "aaaaaaaaaah."
When I asked what he could say in a diplomatic fashionm he replied. "I can’t talk about it. I would LOVE to, but I cannot talk about it. Thank you."
But it doesn't excuse New Jersey. The Devils got caught way too many times going over the line, plain and simple.
Aside: I'm going to start calling Richards the Honorless Captain. He is without honor and it's a shame because he's so talented. He picked up two assists, he had 2 shots on net, played 24:40, drew Kovalchuk into a slashing minor (which the Flyers did little on the ensuing power play) and went 13 for 23 on faceoffs. He had a good night but my big takeaway from Game 2 was his cheapshots on Parise in the first period.
Part of this has to do with the rivalry, where tempers tend to flare. Part of this has to do with it being the playoffs, where emotions run over. Still, the Devils lost their cool way and crossed the fine line with respect to hits. Three interference calls (two on Colin White and one on Andy Greene), one elbowing call (Ilya Kovalchuk), one slashing call (Kovalchuk whilst goaded into fighting by Mike Richards), a high-sticking call (Greene), and one tripping call (David Clarkson). Among all of those, the only justifiable one was Clarkson's trip because he had to dive to stop a breakaway at any cost. The others were just avoidable.
Especially the later ones. You'd think after Kovalchuk was tagged for slashing, the rest of the team would figure out that the refs really don't want to let the game out of hand. All of these minors served to do was to give the Flyers power play a chance to burn New Jersey. On one hand, you could say that the Flyers succeeded: 7 power plays across 11:03 with 10 shots allowed and 2 goals conceded. Moreover, those were two excellent goals: the first PPG by Claude Giroux was a deft deflection on a Matt Carle shot right in front of Broduer and the second came off a deflection by a screening Chris Pronger off a Kimmo Timonen shot. They were important as the first PPG sent the Devils down 2-1 in the first period and the second PPG succeeded at killing all of the momentum the Devils raised in the second period while tying the game up at 3 apiece.
On the other hand, the Flyers left a lot to be desired on those power plays. With 7 power plays taking up a sixth of the whole game, you'd expect a lot more, no? The Devils had some excellent kills where they just allowed next to nothing to happen. This was followed by the Devils turning that momentum from the kill into their favor. Basically unless the Flyers scored on their power play, the Devils responded very well after the kill. Not to mention that the very first power play for Philadelphia of the game saw Zach Parise do this:
Brilliant. You'll see it in the highlights video again, but I don't think you'd mind seeing that again. Still, the Devils really need to keep their tempers and do a better job on picking up what the refs are and aren't calling. On another night, the Flyers could have easily destroyed the Devils just on the power play alone. Thankfully, the Flyers' power play was inconsistent.
As indicated by the 33-29 shot differential, this was not the defensive battle seen in Game 1. Both teams' defenses really stood out more for their offensive contributions. I already mentioned the Flyers', but the Devils' D definitely stepped up. Colin White scored the first Devils goal in the second period that Boucher totally mishandled. It was his first in 101 playoff games per Tom Gulitti's post, and it was crucial as it tied up the game 2-2. Andy Greene was able to get down low as Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk kept the puck moving at the right point, got the puck from Elias in the slot, and one-timed it in on a gorgeous play.
Those goals didn't just get the Devils back into the game and taking a lead - Greene's power play goal got the Devils going in that second period. A deluge of offense that was only quelled on Andy Greene's interference call to make it a 3-on-4 killing situation. Really, the only criticism for both White and Greene were the penalties they took. Outside of that, I felt they were very strong at both ends. Sure, the other Devils defenders were fairly solid and had good moments, e.g. Martin Skoula made a huge play late to prevent a scoring chance at 4-3 with a stick check. But the game had a faster, more offensive tempo and so there were more shots.
An additional criticism I'd like to make for the Devils was in how they started the third period. I know, the second period featured so much going on, so many calls, so many rushes, so many big Martin Brodeur stops, 2 goals scored, forcing Brian Boucher to rob the Devils of anywhere between 1-to-3 goals on scoring chances, and all of it to be deflated with a power play goal against to end it at 3-3. I can get why there was some early trepidation. Yet, this is not the time to start periods off with no shots on net within the first 5 minutes. Again, the Flyers' even strength offense wasn't so great and everyone on New Jersey had their assignments - especially Rob Niedermayer who already looked dumb when he missed Arron Asham in the slot, making his goal quite simple for him to score in the first period. It's more of a minor criticism as the Devils did play the remaining 15 minutes very well.
Now, let's deviate and talk a bit about Ilya Kovalchuk. The fans expect much from Kovalchuk and I'm sure he demands even more from himself. While he's well liked, as evidenced by the giant "KOVALCHUK'S ARMY" banner in section 209, the expectation is for him to be an impact player. He really had none at first. I'd say was on his way to having a terrible night. Here's a summary of his first half: He forced passes, he attempted low-percentage shots, he had a hand in two breakaways against the Devils, and kept going outside with the puck, putting him in poor positions to make smart plays. That's not to mention the two penalties he took.
Amazingly, after the slashing call he took - a dumb reactionary move out of anger on Honorless Captain Mike Richards - he started playing much better. It was as if the penalty allowed him to channel his anger into being an ice-cold winger. He started focusing and made better and more complete passes. That's how he set up two goals, actually. Had he played like he did in the first period, He still ended up with only two shots on net, two blocked, and three missed; but he was far more in sync in the second half of the game. The empty net goal was sweet not just because it iced the game, rather he carried the puck up, stopped at the red line, saw a lane, and fired it in. I hope he doesn't need to get angry and take a needless minor to get going in future games.
There were a few other players of note who did have more complete games: Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus looked great with Parise. They attacked poor Oskars Bartulis and Ryan Parent - why did Peter Laviolette have two rookie defensemen out there in the third period of a tied game, I'll never know - relentlessly down low before getting into the slot for the game-winning goal. Elias racked up 3 assists and looked fantastic next to Parise on the penalty kill. Zubrus had a big role on the game-winner and not just for deflecting it in. His size really helped open up the cycling down low against a Philly defense that wasn't so strong there tonight. If Jacques Lemaire wants to swap Elias with Travis Zajac, fine; but please keep Zubrus across Parise. He really does play a sizable role considering Parise's strengths.
Surprisingly, the captain Jamie Langenbrunner had 5 shots on net. I thought he wasn't noticeable early, likely a by-product of Kovalchuk playing so poorly with the puck. He ended up getting involved far more than some may have noticed. This is good for his confidence, at least. Speaking of confidence, how about Matthew Corrente on the fourth line as a winger? He played 5:14 and one excellent shot in the slot that Boucher had to make a tough stop on. He was OK when he was out there, nothing terribly special; but maybe we'll see him in Game 3.
Overall, one would have to conclude that the Devils were the better team: 33-29 shot differential, 24-18 in 5-on-5 hockey, 4 goals on Boucher, a power play goal out of three opportunities, a shorthanded goal early, Martin Brodeur came up with some big saves to keep the Devils in it whilst only being beaten on shots that most would have struggled with, and, of course, the win. If only the Devils didn't take so many calls, then I wonder whether the Devils would have won in a more decisive fashion.
All the same, the sellout crowd at the Rock, a vast majority of Devils fans, have every reason to feel good forward. Now, can they improve on their discipline while maintaining their "swagger" on offense? That's the big question for Game 3. In the meantime, be glad. Thanks for reading. Big thanks to Steve for the GameThread as well as all who commented and read it. Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, corrections, complaints, compliments, and other feelings about tonight's win in the comments. In closing, here are the highlights from NHL.com: