The New Jersey Devils did not have a successful power play this season. They had a 14.7% conversion rate in the league, the third worst in the NHL. They infamously failed to do much of anything against Ottawa on Wednesday when they had glorious power play opportunities. It hasn't been as bad as the 2002-03 Devils, but this season's squad just hasn't been productive on the power play.
Tonight, the power play was not only the best part of the game for New Jersey; but they were the most crucial. Out of 6 opportunities totaling 8 minutes, the Devils put up 13 shots on net and scored 3 goals. 3 power play goals. That in of itself is huge. To put it in perspective, the Devils have had four games with 2 power play goals scored, the most recent one being on January 23 against Florida. Tonight's game was the first one all season where they struck for 3 goals with a man advantage.
And they were such important goals. The first two were equalizers. On a long 5-on-3, Travis Zajac potted one in to tie up the game at 1-1 in the second period. In the third period, after allowing a power play goal for Atlanta, Ilya Kovalchuk went down low to put back a rebound to make it 2-2. The third came in overtime, again by Travis Zajac in nearly the same spot he scored the first one. A goal at 5-on-3, a goal at 5-on-4, and a goal at 4-on-3.
Don't get it twisted, I'm not saying the Devils power play have figured it out. After all, I did highlight Atlanta's struggles on the penalty kill in the preview for this game. It's great the Devils put the Thrashers and their relatively weak PK to the sword. I just wouldn't start expecting them to score more regularly. However, for tonight, it was wonderful and should be appreciated as it was.
The rest of the game wasn't as wonderful for the Devils, but let's talk about that after the jump. For additional thoughts on tonight's game, feel free to check out Bird Watchers Anonymous.
The Highlights: Marvel at all kinds of stops by Ondrej Pavelec and Martin Brodeur, as well as all five goals scored in tonight's contest:
Well, It Went In And That's the Important Thing: Travis Zajac very nearly blew both goals tonight. Patrik Elias found #19 down low on Pavelec's flank and made incredible cross-crease passes both times. Zajac botched the one-timer on the first and he had to trap the second with the heel of his stick. Fortunately, the puck didn't go astray either time so Zajac was able to pick the corner for the first goal and re-direct the puck slowly into the net on the second.
Zajac had nearly excellent night. He scored two goals, which is great. He went 14-for-21 on faceoffs, which is quite good. He played 23:57, with over 8 minutes total on both special teams, which shows that Jacques Lemaire trusted Zajac enough to keep getting out there. The only spot on his performance was his -3 in Corsi. Yes, Zajac actually was pinned back more at evens when he was on the ice. Weird.
Ilya Kovalchuk is Back: Believe it or not, Kovalchuk was driving his line forward. While Zajac was a -3 in Corsi and Nick Palmieri was a -1, he was a +3. Kovalchuk was a mainstay on the power play, playing all 8 minutes, and put up half of his 6 shots on net with the man advantage. Kovalchuk scored the second power play goal for New Jersey when he left his usual spot on the point, went down low, and potted a rebound off a rebound attempt by Palmieri. It was a smart read due to the goal. Even if there was no goal, it's not a bad idea for him to go down low sometimes. It gave the Thrashers more to worry about in close range than just hoping he'll stay on the perimeter. It keeps PK units honest. In any case, #17 had a strong night; a good bounce back over his tepid performance against the Senators on Wednesday.
The Power Play: I already went through the numbers, but I must emphasize that nearly every power play looked good. The sole exception would be the abbreviated one after the 5-on-3 due to a lack of time and Radek Dvorak getting a shorthanded breakaway (stopped by a pokecheck from Brodeur) after the too many men on the ice call on Atlanta. On every other advantage, the Devils were able to get the puck into Atlanta's end, set up a structure, make the right decision on when to shoot, got those pucks on Pavelec, and work hard for rebounds and loose pucks to sustain the pressure. No, they didn't get it every time but for most of those 8 minutes, they did.
The Devils aren't always going to score on the power play, much less get 3 goals. Though, they are more likely to be able to establish possession and get several shots on net more often. The PP units do have every reason to feel good about what they did regardless and that should help in the short term.
I Don't Have a Problem with the Penalties Called Tonight: I really don't. All were legit in front of the ref for both sides. However...
I Do Have a Problem with the Dustin Byfuglien Goal: Atlanta's power play was horrid on their first two advantages of the evening, but they struck gold on the third. Dustin Byfuglien did play and fired 7 (yes, 7), shots on net. His most valuable one came from the point on this third power play. It got through the traffic in front because Martin Brodeur was hit by Nik Antropov. Replays showed Colin White backing into Antropov, but it looked nothing more than a nudge. Yet, it was enough for Antropov to collapse his 6'6" 245 lbs. frame onto the goalie. Yes, Antropov is big, but I guess he isn't strong at convenient times. Antropov crashing into Brodeur prevented him from making a save, but no matter, it was a goal. Apparently, the contact was enough for the refs to rule that White caused the incident to happen and so the goal stood. I don't buy it. Fortunately, the game wasn't decided by such a ruling, so I just shake my head and move on.
Let's Talk Possession: The Devils started off decently in Corsi at a +3, finished a -4 in the second, and ultimately finished at 0. The Thrashers out-shot the Devils in evens 17-21, though the Devils had a few more attempts to even it up. As such, not too many players stood out in terms of Corsi. The Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne pairing were the best skaters, finishing at +6 and +9, respectively. That makes sense, the pairing did well tonight. Fayne's errors were only allowing a breakaway to Tim Stapleton at the end of the game (time ran out before the shot) and tripping Blake Wheeler. Other than that, he had a fine night; he certainly wasn't suffering out there.
Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela, however, were with a Corsi of -11 and -12 respectively. They were usually behind the Zajac line, who weren't pounded tonight. However, they saw Atlanta's top line of Andrew Ladd (1 SOG, +6 Corsi), Blake Wheeler (1 goal, 2 SOG, +3 Corsi), and Bryan Little (2 secondary assists, 2 SOG, +6 Corsi) the most and that's where they suffered. Excuse the confirmation bias, but I've noticed it the most in the second period in the time between Zajac's first goal and the hilarious too many men on the ice call. Atlanta was buzzing the most then, and so the Devils were forced just to get out of trouble.
Among Devils forwards, only the checking line of David Steckel (-5 Corsi), David Clarkson (-6 Corsi), and Rod Pelley (-4 Corsi) was negative across the board. I'd get used to seeing that since there isn't a lot of offensive talent among those three. Kovalchuk carried his line; the Elias line had another good possession game; and the youngsters were OK.
Kids: Vladimir Zharkov showed that he's quick, he gets into traffic, and he was denied twice on rebounds by Pavelec early. Mattias Tedenby drew a hooking call on Tobias Enstrom that led to Kovalchuk's goal, led a 2-on-1 in the third, and put up 2 shots on net. Jacob Josefson didn't get any shots, but he was superb on faceoffs by going 6-for-8. All three were positive in Corsi, each got over 10 minutes tonight, and each deserved the minutes. Good work.
Why, Yes, The Devils Do Know What Rebounds Are: From time to time, I'll read or hear the complaint that the Devils don't get enough bodies down low, don't screen the goaltender, and/or don't get rebounds. I wish that those with that lament got a good look at tonight's game. All three goals were right at the crease, one was off a rebound, and the Devils managed to keep several of their attacks alive by winning possession off loose pucks and rebounds. Since they were successful to a point at it, tonight's game was clear evidence that, yes, the Devils do these things.
Of course, it helps when Ondrej Pavelec was kicking pucks every which way and moving quickly - something he's used to doing given that he's a goaltender on the Thrashers. Truthfully, I felt both goaltenders were very good tonight. Pavelec had no chance on either of the three goals and Brodeur was beaten on a Blake Wheeler one-timer on a 3-on-2 (well, 3-on-3, though Palmieri's decision to not cover his offwing man - Wheeler - essentially made it a 3-on-2) and snowplowed by Antropov on the other.
Penalty Killers: While the power play will deservedly receive accolades, I have to give some credit to the penalty killers. They completely shut down the Thrashers on their first two power plays. No shots on net at all. The third one only had one shot, which was Byfuglien's goal by way of Antropov interference - that's not the PK's fault. The fourth one was the only one where they didn't seem so strong, allowing 3 shots on net. I can't be mad at that since it was in overtime and 3-on-4 kills mean someone's going to have a lot of space. The Devils did get out of it, which is the important thing. Overall, they held Atlanta to 4 shots over 4 opportunities lasting 6:15. That's very good and so thank the PK units for their work tonight. Especially Colin White (3:34 SH TOI) and Zajac (3:00 SH TOI).
These Guys from Brick City are Resilient - Like Tougher Than Bricks: OK, no one on the Devils is from Newark, New Jersey; but that's what they call home. It's impressive that the Devils won a game mainly because of their power play, which hasn't been good this season. It's just as impressive that the Devils came from behind to win this game. Recall that their first two goals were necessary to tie up the game. Recall that Zajac's second goal won the game in overtime. Recall that the Devils didn't have a great start (though it picked up later in the second) and got rolled over a few times after Zajac's first goal in the second. Tonight's victory was not the result of superior play throughout the game; it was one of resilience.
I am emphasizing that word because earlier in the season, the Devils didn't have this. They would have folded after the first goal allowed, and if not then, then definitely after the second. Someone would make a mistake, that would lead to another mistake, and that would leave the goaltender out to dry. That's what would have happened back in 2010 or in the first week of 2011. Tonight provided the latest example that this team truly is different under Jacques Lemaire.
If nothing else, that the Devils can perform and get results in these one-goal games and games that go beyond regulation says a lot more about the team's turnaround more than their record. They aren't all pretty wins. They aren't all wins where the Devils are just hot and stomping on someone for 60 minutes. They are getting the job done by any means necessary and when something bad does happen, I don't get the same sense of dread I would get in the first half this season. More importantly, neither do the players. They just get back to work and look to make it up. Tonight was no different - the only surprise is that the goals all came on the power play.
That's my take on tonight's game. What would you like to see the Devils improve upon for tomorrow's game? What changes do you think Lemaire should make? Do you feel at least little bit better about the Devils' power play for the next few games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game. Thanks to all who commented in the Gamethread; and thank you for reading.