For the first forty minutes of this game, I was perplexed. The New Jersey Devils and the Tampa Bay Lightning seemingly traded blows. Went shift for shift with one another. Responded to sloppy offensive play with more sloppy offensive play. Both teams tried to trap in the neutral zone, but I didn't think it worked well. Both suffered on offense beyond the blueline, not before it. Oh, sure, there would be one shift with significant pressure and another where the attack is kept alive due to a defensive error. But shots seemed few and far between. From what I saw, it was an even game on the ice and the 1-1 score after the second period was fitting.
Then the Devils slowly took over in the third period. The Devils were out-shooting the Bolts in the first two periods, but there wasn't a lot of cohesion. Again, it was a lot of one good offensive shift followed by not much for a little while and then maybe another decent shift. Not so in the third. The Devils built some momentum. They had a few more good offensive shifts than the Lightning. There was pressure. There was a feeling the Devils could do something.
And then Ilya Kovalchuk gets handcuffed by a pass from Travis Zajac, falls down as he shoots, and it's a laserbeam over Dwayne Roloson's right shoulder. A brilliant goal and yet, for some reason, I wasn't surprised. Of course, Kovalchuk would score that kind of goal. Of course, that kind of goal would break the deadlock. Of course, it would command large chants of "Ko-vy" because how else is one to react to such a strike? He's done so many amazing things in the past few weeks and played a wonderful game. Of course, he'd so something brilliant.
While that goal was important, what the Devils did afterward was also brilliant: they kept attacking. Patrik Elias was sprung for a great shot by Dainius Zubrus not long after the goal. The Devils rushed up ice with the puck when necessary. Zubrus got hooked from behind in a one-on-one before being shoved from behind into the corner late. Most of all, the Devils forced Roloson to go back into his net twice - thanks to Kovalchuk - when he tried to get off for the extra skater. The Devils out-shot the Lightning 11-6 in the third period and they ultimately outplayed them for most of the third period. They fully deserved the 2-1 win.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game, along with game stats and a highlight video, after the jump. For the opposition's take on tonight's game, please check out Raw Charge.
The Highlight Video: From NHL.com, here's the highlight video from tonight's game, featuring more of that Kovalchuk Brilliance.
#17 was the Number of the Be(a)st Tonight: His stat line in the event summary is ridiculous. 22:38 of total ice time, eight shots on net, a goal, and an assist. Check out the Corsi: he was a +10, the highest among all forwards on the ice tonight. He was double-shifted a few times, and why not? Kovalchuk was feeling it tonight.
Kovalchuk was a near-constant in taking the puck up ice, streaking through the neutral zone, and then making his move from there. If he stopped, he was looking for a cross-ice pass to an incoming Devil and he made that pass just about every time. If he kept going forward, he knew he could take the guy in front of him. Either way, the puck was going in the right direction and that spelled trouble for Tampa Bay. It's common for him and tonight, it was highly recommended. Only once did it backfire and led to a counter-attack; but it's no big deal since he created attacks, kept them alive, and finished one with greatness.
The head to head ice time chart shows that at even strength, his most common matchup was the Vincent Lecavalier line (Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, and Teddy Purcell) the most with Eric Brewer and Mattias Ohlund. In the last Tampa Bay game, Brewer did well against Kovalchuk. Tonight, Kovalchuk got some sweet revenge as he and his linemates (Zajac - +7 Corsi; Palmieri - +8 Corsi) tore through that matchup.
You Know, For An Old Guy, You're Pretty Good Pt. 1: You know who else had an awesome night? Brian Rolston. He finished with seven shots on net tonight. It seemed like Dainius Zubrus created the space, Patrik Elias would make the play, and Rolston would fire away when he got the puck. That's why Zubrus got no shots, Elias got one (and it was a dangerous one in the third period, created by Kovalchuk), and Rolston had as many as seven. That's OK as the line did very well; Zubrus and Rolston had +8 Corsi each and Elias was +6.
Rolston also had a breakaway in the second period, but a defender caught up to him from behind to prevent any shot. It would have been perfect if he managed to get a goal off that chance, but Rolston didn't let it get to him. While asking for 7 SOG is asking for a lot, it's more of what I like to see from the veteran winger.
The David Steckel Debut: Tom Gulitti reported before today's game that Steckel looked nervous. It definitely was noticeable on the ice tonight. Steckel centered David Clarkson and Rod Pelley the most; Pelley and Vladimir Zharkov were switched prior to gametime. While Pelley and Clarkson did a lot of hustling, Steckel was just sort of there from what I saw. He didn't do anything bad to actively hurt the team, but he didn't do too much to go forward.
I will say it was disappointing to see the league leader in faceoff winning percentage go 4-for-12 tonight. But that's just an off night. I think he'll be fine, both on the dot and in general play. He just needs to acclimate himself to a new team. All in due time.
The line as a whole wasn't all that great. They saw Tampa Bay's third line of Adam Hall, Dominic Moore, and Sean Bergenheim and were slightly negative. Pelley finished at -4 Corsi; Clarkson was even, and Steckel was -1. At least they weren't significantly pinned back.
The Kid Line: Since Pelley and Clarkson were with Steckel, this led to a line of Jacob Josefson centering Mattias Tedenby and Vladimir Zharkov. They didn't get a lot of minutes, all three were held to less than 10. I can see why Lemaire did that as he tried to match them against Nathan Thompson and Dana Tyrell, who made up a shortened fourth line for the Lightning (Steven Stamkos seemingly was the double-shifted man). Since those two didn't get a lot of ice time, neither did they. Besides, the game was close throughout all three periods and Lemaire didn't want to give Guy Boucher a chance to match-up a top line against the youngsters.
Most of all, the three didn't do a whole lot. Zharkov did get an assist on Henrik Tallinder's goal, so there's that. However, none of them got a shot on net tonight. Three forwards, no shots on goal, and one shooting attempt (a missed shot for Josefson). That's not good. At least Zharkov and Josefson weren't pinned back much, finishing with a +2. Tedenby was a -2. How could this be? Well, some guy named Kovalchuk took a few of Tedenby's shifts. And it was the right call as Kovalchuk was sparkling on the ice while Tedenby wasn't doing much.
Last point on the kids at evens, I hope to see that Josefson is sent down to Albany for contractual and developmental purposes.
Honored: Since the Devils came back on a four game road trip, there was an announcement at the Rock during a stoppage in play for Elias hitting his 800th career point in Carolina and for Equipment Manager Rich Matthews, who served his 1,500th game recently. The fans responded appropriately to both with applause and cheers.
Devils Were Better in Possession...Really?: Apparently so, and it's not even close. The Devils were a +15 tonight. They out-shot the Lightning 23-13 at evens. They also attempted more shots overall, 42-25. So, yeah, the Devils were more dominant on the puck. I guess that's why they didn't look so bad to start the game. Sloppy, but they were at least going forward and attempting shots.
To be fair, Tampa Bay had several shifts with offensive pressure. However, they did a lot of work without getting an attempt. No, Corsi or Fenwick of shot percentage does not account for when teams control the puck looking to set up a shot. Yet, what's the point of cycling the puck and moving it around the offensive zone if there's going to be no attempt to shoot? It's not just inefficient, it's just dumb - especially when the score was close in all three periods.
While my goal was really only achieved by the Elias line over the Stamkos line, I did get to see the Devils' top line pound the Lecavalier line over and over. The bottom two lines didn't get wrecked, so it's all good overall. That reminds me...
Did You See Stamkos? Are You Sure? Was It Someone Else in Disguise?: Stamkos was miserable tonight. He flew into Martin Brodeur which got him two minutes for goaltender interference and that was his night. In over 20 minutes of work, he went 5 for 10 on faceoffs, had no shots on net, and was destroyed in Corsi with a ending mark of -12. His partner-in-scoring Martin St. Louis was similarly invisible, he only had one shot on net and was blocked twice in over 22 minutes of icetime. Like Stamkos, his Corsi ended at a miserable -11.
I know they are two of the league's top scorers and in a close game you want them out there. Understandable. Yet, Guy Boucher couldn't get them away from the Elias line or the pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne. Both were excellent, Tallinder scored a goal with a slapshot on a bouncing puck, and both finished with a +11 in Corsi - the puck was heading the right when they were out there. Why didn't Boucher mix up his two lines since they were being beaten on? I don't get Tampa Bay sometimes.
Swallowing Whistles May Be Hazardous to Your Health: The refs let a lot go tonight. Cross-checks to the back, hooks, slashes, holds, out-right tackles in front of the striped men, and so forth. All of it was not called. Call it confirmation bias, but the worst was when Zubrus got hooked from behind in a one-on-one and then got shoved from behind into the boards by (I think) Ohlund. That was a dangerous play and they did nothing. Nevermind that they tagged Anton Volchenkov for charging when he did something similar near the end of the second period. The fans were livid and they had every right to be.
If the NHL is serious about hits from behind, then they should review that situation and act accordingly. Yes, I know it's more likely that I'll get a unicorn before that happens; but my point stands.
To be fair, the refs also should have called a couple of penalties on New Jersey. I'm still mystified that Colin White cross checked Stamkos from behind in the middle of a puck battle right in front of a referee and didn't get anything.
When there was a penalty actually called, it was inarguable. Anssi Salmela did throw the puck over the glass like a fool; Volchenkov needlessly and dangerously hit Gagne. Stamkos ran Brodeur, and Gagne clearly hooked Clarkson. All easy calls.
One last ref note: in the first half of the game, was it just me or did they get in the way of the puck more than a few times? Bad luck, of course, but it was just so weird to see it happen more than just one or two times this evening.
Special Teams: The Devils power play was off. Three shots in four minutes, not the greatest output. The best scoring chance on either power play may have been when Thompson took advantage of a puck bouncing off Rolston at the point (the one bad bounce for Rolston) and went on a breakaway. Yeah, not the greatest of nights.
I should point out that the second unit had four rookies - Mark Fayne, Tedenby, Josefson, Palmieri - for a little bit with Kovalchuk as the sole veteran. This unit backfired because Kovalchuk had to do everything on it. Sure, he could carry it up and make plays. But he shouldn't be setting up plays. He's not shooting when he does that. He should be the guy they set up for, he has the cannon, after all.
The penalty killers had their long killing streak broken when dealing with the Salmela minor. Pavel Kubina slid an angled pass that deflected off Dominic Moore's skate (and got credited for the goal) and beat Brodeur. I call it a fluke. Fortunately, Tampa Bay never took full advantage of their second man advantage of the night. The PK units were solid and the Lightning were thrown off to the point where they took three offside calls to kick off the third period. They only allowed two shots on net, so that's not bad. The fluke deflection is what it is.
You Know, For An Old Guy, You're Pretty Good Pts.2 & 3: Both defenses collapsed well and cleaned up several rebounds. That doesn't take away from how both goalies did tonight. I thought Brodeur and Roloson had fine games. While Brodeur didn't see a lot of rubber, what he did see was pretty tough. Stopping Thompson's shorthanded breakaway was crucial, made big stop on Purcell in the third period, and he some nice stops on Gagne, who was Tampa Bay's top shooter.
Roloson had more work to do but he kept his calm and held the puck well, freezing the puck when possible. Roloson didn't have to slide around too much, he was in position for most of the shots and He really can't be faulted on either goal against. I don't think he saw Tallinder's shot due the sheer amount of bodies around him; and Kovalchuk's shot was perfect. The loss can't be placed on his shoulders, though I doubt anyone is saying it is.
Speaking Of, Let's See It Again: Kovalchuk's goal:
How to Kill Off a Game: The Devils were excellent after the Kovalchuk goal. I know this because Tampa Bay had exactly two shots on net after it. According to the game's official play by play, Gagne had both with 6:48 and 6:33 left to play. That's all for the team that was down by 1. The team that was leading had 6 shots on net since then. Those shots forced defensive zone faceoffs for the other team, the two within the final minute of the game forced Roloson to stay in his net, and the Lightning were kept more than honest. That's how you protect a lead; you don't sit on it, you make life as difficult as possible for the opposition in your end and you fire a few shots to keep them honest. I wish it was recorded so it can be shown at clinics.
Season Series: 3-1-0 against Tampa Bay. A rather good record against the second best team in the East.
Overall, I'm pleased with how the game turned out. I wish the Devils were sharper going forward in the first two periods; but the improvement in the third period was sufficient. I want to know what you thought about tonight's game. What did you like the most about the Devils' performance? Were you impressed at how well the top two lines played? Did you like the Devils' defense? Isn't Kovalchuk amazing? What do you think they need to improve for Friday's game against Pittsburgh? Please let me know of your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread, all the fans at the game (including those who are fans of this site), and thank you for reading.