The New Jersey Devils defeated the Florida Panthers 5-2 tonight at the Rock, and it was a close game. Let me explain what I mean by that as well as the title.
The Devils were winning 3-2 thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk scoring with 8:20 left to play in the game. It was a tight game with sloppiness by both teams to various degrees. The game got even closer thanks to a late call. With 2:52 left to play, Zach Parise got tagged with a delay of game minor. Parise tried to argue his case that it went into the bench, but the refs weren't listening. Florida was granted a power play, a golden opportunity to tie up the game. With time running out, Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen decided to be bold and pull Jakob Markstrom with about 1:10 left to play. The Devils just had to hold on, keep Florida to the outside. Bryce Salvador chipped a puck along the boards, Jason Garrison couldn't keep it in, and Ilya Kovalchuk took the puck up to the red line and fired it in to make it 4-2.
With Parise still in the box for another 8 seconds, Dineen decided to remain bold and kept Markstrom on the bench. With under a minute to play, if Florida was going to get a miracle, then they needed six skaters. Florida got the puck into the zone as Parise came out of the box. The captain joined in on a puck battle and Patrik Elias got a chip out of the zone on the same side. Parise beat Mike Santorelli, skated down the length of the ice, and slid it into the net to make it 5-2. The game was essentially close for 59 minutes, but the Devils put up 2 late ones to make it seem otherwise at first glance. Hockey can be a funny game in that way.
That said, I do think the Devils did deserve the win tonight. They did out-shoot the Panthers 29-24 over the whole game. They made more attempts on net than the Panthers, 42-35 overall. In focusing on even strength situations, the Devils were a +3 in Corsi, which is nice to see in a close game. They kept Florida's power line quiet. They were better on special teams. The Devils even did fairly well at the faceoff dot by going 31-for-59 as a team. The performance was far better than what was seen on Wednesday. Then again, the Panthers definitely aren't the Bruins.
I will say the performance did have some flaws, though. As a whole, the game was pretty sloppy regardless of New Jersey having an edge. The Devils could have had a lot more offense, but they coughed up a lot of pucks in the neutral zone and in Florida's end. With respect to that, Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise stick out in my mind for the myriad of passes that missed their mark and went right onto Florida's sticks, which killed attacks. They definitely weren't the only ones who did that tonight, though; they just stuck out. The fourth line sucked and Cam Janssen managed to do a lot of damage in 3 shifts, such as giving up the puck that led to Florida's second goal. Johan Hedberg was fighting the puck in the first 40 minutes and gave up a soft one. The most I can say about the power play was that they didn't get scored on. That all said, the Panthers weren't all that sharp either, so the Devils' errors didn't come back to haunt them too much. Credit for that goes to a blueline that was mostly solid this evening.
Still, the Devils did get some very good individual performances. Patrik Elias was the best player on the ice tonight. He was terrible against Boston, but he sparkled in his 1,000th career hockey game. He was the team's top player in possession with a +9 in Corsi, and he did it while playing against Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, and Kris Versteeg for the most part. That in of itself was excellent. His goal from the high slot was beautiful and gave the Devils an early 2-1 lead in the second period. His pass to a crashing Ilya Kovalchuk was right on the money, as Kovalchuk scored the game winner. Elias also drew two penalties, had an additional shot on net, and even got a second assist on Parise's empty net goal. Elias deserved the ovation he got from the fans when his 1,000th career game was announced during the game and when he was named the game's first star by tonight's attending media. Well done to Elias and to the Devils for avoiding a losing streak in a closer-than-it-looks 5-2 win over Florida.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please check out Ryan Meier's recap of the game over at Litter Box Cats.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: The New Jersey Devils won their first game in regulation since last Saturday. Watch some highlights of it in this video from NHL.com:
The Curious Case of Ilya Kovalchuk's Night: During tonight's game, I was confused in how to feel about Kovalchuk's performance. He did attempt a lot of passes that didn't work and so he struggled with the puck. I didn't like his backchecking effort on Mikael Samuelsson's goal. He got double-shifted in place of Cam Janssen early and was a non-factor on the fourth line (I know, big surprise given who's on it). He seemingly had more misses than shots on target on the power play. At the same time, he did backcheck well on other shifts (he picked Versteeg's pocket from behind at the start of a 4-on-4 situation), he made a couple good passes to spring the offense, and he won a few pucks in the corners. Kovalchuk did score one on Markstrom and another into an empty net, which respectively won and iced the game. To my surprise when I got home did I learn he had 7 shots on net, with 5 at even strength. Kovalchuk actually turned out to be a positive player with a +2 Corsi, moreso than Adam Henrique, who was -2, and Zach Parise, who was at zero.
Did Ilya Kovalchuk have a good night? It depends on how you look at it. He did score twice, fired a lot of pucks, and did some good things away from the puck. He could have been a lot better if his passing was more on the mark, I will say that. Tonight, he was lucky in a way that it didn't turn out to hurt the team. But he wasn't the only one with that problem and if anyone redeemed it, then it would have to be him given his two scores.
In Other Comeback News: In the preview, I identified Elias as one of four players I wanted to see have a good performance tonight after being particularly bad against Boston. Elias most certainly did that. What about the other three?
Adam Henrique finished the night at -2 Corsi (mostly against the Goc line) and went 7-for-17 on faceoffs, which aren't good. However, he did score the game's first goal, finishing off a killer pass from Parise right in front of the net. He also managed to put 4 shots on net, and he did well for himself on the PK. He even picked up an assist on Kovalchuk's empty net goal, which is Henrique's 30th point of the season. I really wanted to see something from him tonight and I got that. He could have been better, but I can't complain too loudly with how he played.
Adam Larsson had a good night on defense. He finished the night at +4 Corsi, the highest among the Devils' defensemen this evening. What was impressive from him was what I didn't see from the rookie. I didn't see him make a costly giveaway from his own end of the rink. I didn't see him force a shot that he shouldn't have taken. I didn't see him miss his coverage so badly that one has to wonder what he's thinking. I didn't see him avoid taking some initiative along the boards. I didn't see him take a penalty; in fact, he drew a high-sticking penalty from Stephen Weiss, which led to the 4-on-4 situation that the Devils scored on. Those are the things I like not seeing. Good.
Petr Sykora also had a good evening as well. He rolled with Elias as usual on evens, went up against Florida's top three forwards at evens for the most part, and finished the night at +5 Corsi. I almost want to say he screened Markstrom a bit when Elias took his shot, which may have helped it go in. Even if he didn't, Sykora and Dainius Zubrus won the puck in the corner which led to Elias' goal anyway. Sykora had 2 shots on net, 2 missed shots, and didn't pass up anything good. While he didn't get on the scoreboard, he was better this evening.
With the possible exception of Henrique, I'd say my call-outs were successful. Maybe I should do it more often?
A Moose Watch: Johan Hedberg didn't look all that good in the first forty minutes in my opinion. Sure, he made a few good saves here and there. However, he really looked dumb on Krys Barch's goal in the second period; and one could make a case that he should have done better on Samuelsson's shot. Hedberg looked to be fighting the puck too, as best seen when he tumbled over after stopping a shot to his logo from the blueline. I think it was Marcel Goc who shot it, but it was just a bizarre sight. Hedberg looked more poised in the third period and made his saves with a little more confidence. Overall, I have to say Moose was OK but I think even he would agree he could have been better.
Oh, he also could stand to stay in his net a little more often. He nearly got caught in the third period when a dumped in puck hit a glass support and angled it towards the empty net. Thankfully, the angle was enough to see it slide harmlessly away from the net.
Cam Janssen Sucks: 1:56 of ice time, 3 shifts, several missed checks where seemingly charged on all of them, and after the one check he does connect on, he knocks the puck to Brian Campbell to start a 4-on-2 rush that saw Krys Barch score. I wasn't happy with his signing back in the summer as I argued that Janssen wasn't good at all at playing hockey. Tonight, I became convinced that he's St. Louis, Missouri's answer to Krzysztof Oliwa. Ugh.
Maybe Peter DeBoer Likes the Challenge of Not Playing His Best Guys: With Travis Zajac held out due to soreness and Mattias Tedenby scratched, your bottom six included Janssen (see above), Eric Boulton, Ryan Carter, Tim Sestito, Steve Zalewski, and David Clarkson. Zalewski made his debut with New Jersey, so there's no need to be harsh on him. Clarkson and Carter are actually NHL players. Those three players were the only ones who had a shot on net. Yeah, Sestito, Boulton, and Janssen didn't register a shot on net - what a surprise. Three guys who are less likely to score than Vladimir Zharkov aren't chipping in much. Shocking, I know. Oh, but the fourth line contributed a GA tonight. That's something bad, but it's something.
Believe it or not, Florida did not destroy them. Zalewski was the lowest Corsi player at only -3 and Boulton was a +1 to lead the group. And only Janssen got benched extra early; Sestito and Boulton played over 9 minutes tonight. So they weren't as bad as I feared. They weren't all that good, but they weren't albatrosses around the team's collective neck tonight. That said, it's not the best bottom six group DeBoer could have had tonight. For all of his struggles, Tedenby's better than Boulton, and Janssen so putting him in place of either of them is an upgrade. Carter has centered Clarkson and Tedenby in the past, so he should have been with them. The called up Zalewski could have taken the fourth line fine with Sestito and Boulton/Janssen. Right there is a better third line in terms of offense and only has one set of hired fists in the lineup. Calling up Nick Palmieri or Zharkov or someone else can replace the other one to create a possibly competent fourth line. But for some reason, expect this for another game or two.
The Zalewski Debut: I didn't know what to expect from Zalewski, but I was pleased with what he did on the ice. A -3 in Corsi against the Mike Santorelli line isn't too bad given the make up of the bottom six. Zalewski did get a shot on net, he played 12:29 of ice time, and he was very good on faceoffs by going 8-for-11. That's not a bad debut. Do I expect him to stick with NJ? Probably not unless he shows up something good. That said, I'd take him over Sestito.
Where I Question the Scorer: If you go to the Event Summary, you'll see that Kovalchuk got dinged for 3 giveaways while Parise had none. This makes no sense since Parise most definitely gave away the puck a few times tonight. I almost want to say he had 3 of them from behind Florida's net trying to feed a Devil in the slot who wasn't where Parise thought he'd be. In fact, while some fans booed Kovalchuk's giveaway in the neutral zone near the end of the second period; they were silent when Parise coughed it up at the blueline seconds earlier. I'm not going to dispute Kovalchuk's turnovers; but why didn't the scorer tag Parise for any of this?
Keeping the Power Line at Bay: Stephen Weiss took two penalties, had no shots on net, and was a -4 in Corsi. Tomas Flesichmann had 3 shots on net and finished a -3 in Corsi. Kris Versteeg had 2 shots, 2 posts - one of which was on an incredible opportunity to score, and a -5 in Corsi. Versteeg should have scored one, but he didn't so the Devils successfully quelled Florida's top group. That's a big achievement.
Improved Defense: You know, it just occurred to me while writing this: the Devils' defense had a solid game all around. No one finished negative in Corsi. While they weren't perfect, they did hold Florida to a mere 21 shots on net at evens and tightened up further on the PK with only 2 more allowed. They cleaned up the puck fairly well. There weren't too many errors that really hurt them. I liked how the group played as a whole. After two games where they were beaten on, it's good to see that on the ice.
A Road Ahead: The Devils will now play the rest of their away games for January with a four-game road trip. Getting the win tonight is big not only to carry some good feelings into the trip, but also to taking a three-game losing streak with their bags. They won't get to enjoy tonight's win for too long as they'll play in Pittsburgh tomorrow night; but a good two points over an conference opponent definitely helps.
Appreciate Empty Net Goals: I don't think empty net goals are cheap goals to get. If the score is close, then getting that kind of goal really seals the deal. I've grown to appreciate the ENG given the Devils' issues in the third period this season as well as how bad heartbreaking late equalizers feel. The Devils doubled-up their ENG count tonight to 4 and I hope that they'll be able to get a few more to secure some more wins instead of going beyond regulation.
Lastly: No third period goals allowed, no shorthanded goals allowed, and a lead was held after the third goal scored. All of that is worth pointing out, I think.
Those are my thoughts on tonight's game, I want to know yours. What did you make of the team's performance overall? How do you think Florida played? Would you agree that Elias had a great night? How about Kovalchuk, Henrique, Larsson, or Sykora? What would they need to do to play well tomorrow night? What would you do with the third and fourth lines? How did you like Zalewski's debut? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread who commented or read it; thanks to those who follow @InLouWeTrust on Twitter; and thank you for reading.