Stop me if you heard this one before. The New Jersey Devils hosted a team from the New York area on a weekday night for a game. The Devils have a good first period and Ilya Kovalchuk scored the game's first goal. The opposition had some chances, but for the most part, the Devils looked better. The second period comes along and the ice is seemingly against the Devils. The opposition throws a lot of rubber on net, the Devils don't respond in kind, and despite the great play of Martin Brodeur, he gets beaten. After the third intermission, a feeling of concern sets in as the game is still a game who knows what will happen. Fortunately, the Devils step on the ice, attack far more effectively, and not only score first but score multiple goals to seal a win by a comfortable margin.
While this game certainly gave me the feeling of deja vu, what will make this game stand out among most others in this season is the play of Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk was excellent on Tuesday. Tonight, he topped that performance. No, Kovalchuk didn't get more than eight shots on net out of ten shooting attempts. He only had four out of nine attempts go on net. No, Kovalchuk wasn't great by way of Fenwick or Corsi. He was a -4 in Fenwick and a -7 in Corsi tonight, though he did see a lot of Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald, and the John Tavares line - a difficult unit to play against. All Kovalchuk did was score three powerful, beautiful goals that made all of the Devils fans all around the world jump up in excitement and then sit down and really understand how amazing of a shooter Kovalchuk can be.
The three goals Kovalchuk scored on Evgeni Nabokov were glorious. The first was a second effort play. Kovalchuk whiffed on a one-timer from Zach Parise on the right post. The puck bounced right back to him and Kovalchuk roofed it over the fallen Nabokov, who just dove thinking he had to deny a one-timer. The second goal came on a power play Kovalchuk drew when Steve Staios tripped him. The Devils got set up quickly, Marek Zidlicky slung him the puck in a perfect spot for a one-timer, and Kovalchuk just blasted it shortside to Nabokov's right. No chance for the goalie. The third one was the dagger. A little over a minute after Patrik Elias' goal made it 3-1, the Adam Henrique line attacked and Parise got the puck along the sideboards. He sees Kovalchuk in space just outside of the high slot area. Parise gives him a perfect pass for a one timer and Kovalchuk unleashed a rocket. Nabokov may have been in the area, but he wasn't stopping that shot short of a miracle. It wasn't just a goal. It was a message to the Islanders that this game was over. And the message was greeted with all kinds of hats being flung towards the ice, end netting or otherwise. The goals were just sublime from Kovalchuk.
It wasn't like Kovalchuk was just scoring goals, which otherwise would be enough for anyone. He was making Hamonic and MacDonald look silly in one-on-one situations where Kovalchuk had the puck. He was making passes to Devils in dangerous positions, either denied by a bad bounce or a great play by the Isles' defense. He was going north-south, east-west, and everywhere else on the ice with aplomb. Even if a play broke down, Kovalchuk just took it in stride and focused on making the next one work. Kovalchuk was in rampage-mode, except it's a controlled, calculated rampage. You know he would get the puck, you know he was going to get where he wants, you know what he intends to do and there was not a whole lot the Islanders could have done about it. Kovalchuk had one of his best games as a New Jersey Devil period. Tonight, he was one of the main reasons why the Devils won big 5-1 against a team they came up lame against four days ago. Tonight, he proved yet again why Kovalchuk is an important part of this team. Tonight, we all were reminded how fortunate we are to see a player of Kovalchuk's skill excel right before our very eyes.
Dominik has a short recap of this game over at Lighthouse Hockey where he notes the Isles didn't play their best line up. I see where he's coming from, but I don't think Michael Grabner would have made that much of a difference on a night dominated by New Jersey's #17. I have many more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump.
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 Game Highlights: I saw this game live and I want to see the highlights again. The five Devils goals are worth watching again and again and again. Thanks to NHL.com, we can do that with this highlight video.
Video Update with Third Period Goals: For some inexplicable reason, the game highlights video from NHL.com only shows the first two periods. I don't know why. So to make up for it, here are the videos of the three Devils goals in the third period. First, Elias' goal:
Second, Kovalchuk's third of the night:
Third, Clarkson's re-direction:
I hope you enjoyed them all.
Twenty Shots, Five Goals, and My Main Criticism of the Night: It was important that Kovalchuk was so lethal with his shooting because the Devils weren't exactly piling up lots of rubber on Nabokov. It wasn't an issue tonight because the Devils scored five goals. However, like the Rangers game on Tuesday, the relative dearth of shots was a result of a poor second period.
Whereas the Blueshirts pinned the Devils back with possession, the Blueorangeshirts did most of their damage on the rush. The Devils had an annoying tendency where they would get the puck going forward, but they would lose it at some point either in the neutral zone or in the Islanders' end. The Isles would happen to get numbers going forward and as a result, set up a challenging shot. While the Isles did get set up a few times, the period was more or less back-and-forth only the Devils didn't succeed in getting pucks towards the net all that often much less get them on net. Kovalchuk scored on the power play early in the period, the Isles kept pushing ahead and the Devils floundered. It wasn't just that the Isles out-shot the Devils 12-5, but the Devils also went shotless for the final 8:58 of the period. That's not good at all, especially since they Isles got on the scoreboard. It was a fluke, but I can't say they didn't deserve to get at least one.
Fortunately, like in the Rangers game, the Devils came out with a more aggressive gameplan where they succeeded in attacking more and more. The Isles put up a far better fight than the Rangers and still managed to out-shoot the Devils 11-9. The difference were the goals, of course. The Devils got great plays put together and made the most of them. On some nights, that's more than enough to make up a shot differential of 10. It renders the team Fenwick of -9 and the team Corsi of -13 less significant since the Devils got such a big lead.
As great as this result was (and it was great), we should know that the Devils aren't going to be so prolific at scoring in future games. They need to do a better job of generating shots on net. That requires an attack that doesn't suffer for a period, be it in the first, second or third. How the Devils did in the second concerns me to some degree. The Isles could have taken the game in the second period, or put up more resistance in the third to at least keep it close. We may even see that on Saturday night, in fact.
Poor in the Second and Still Up a Score? That Must Mean...: ...Martin Brodeur was fantastic. Like in the Rangers game, Brodeur had to play big when the rest of the team was ineffective. The Isles hit Brodeur with 30 shots and they varied from down low shots to blasts from distance to simple crash-the-net-and-hope-the-puck-bounces-your-way chaos. Brodeur was unfazed by all of them. He denied Matt Moulson on the Isles' second power play at the post. He got his body in front of a few quick shots from John Tavares on the rush. He contended with shots from Mark Streit, Milan Jurcina, and Staios from range and played them as well as he could. Brodeur was his usual superb self playing the puck around his net. He wasn't even bothered when his stick broke in the second period!
The only ways the Isles were going to beat Brodeur was with a great opportunity or a very fortunate bounce. The Isles almost had the former but P.A. Parenteau and Josh Bailey thankfully whiffed on shots that could have beaten Brodeur on his flank. They settled for the latter late in the second period. Bailey took a shot that was deflected wide and went into the corner. MacDonald, of all players, goes right to the corner and flings a puck towards the net. Brodeur had his head turned but just as MacDonald fired the shot. The puck sailed right off the back of Brodeur's right arm and plopped into the net. A fluke score, definitely. Fortunately, it was the only one as Brodeur warded off the Isles chances of getting back into the game in the third. Yet again, Brodeur puts up a very fine performance. Funny how that's happening.
Speaking of Funny: I cackled with glee when the Islanders took a too many men on the ice penalty during their third power play of the evening. Bryce Salvador took a stupid penalty when he cleared it over the glass past halfway through the third period at 4-1. The Isles power play looked threatening all night long, like they did on Sunday. They needed a PPG as a lifeline, a way to have a long shot to get back in the game. Salvador seemingly handed it to them. And then over a minute into it, the Isles managed to get six on the ice. Penalty killed, a short power play for the Devils, and more time off the clock. Ha ha ha!
Right Place, Right Time: At 2-1 starting in the third period, the game was up for grabs. While the Devils actually had some successful offensive shifts, the Isles were no slouches. They knew the game was still possible and put a decent effort on Brodeur. After all, the Devils have been known to give up third period leads. Surely, the Isles knew this. There was some legitimate reason to be concerned.
That's why Patrik Elias' goal was so important. He was in the right place at the right time to jam at a loose puck twice to beat Nabokov to make it 3-1. It re-established the two goal lead the Devils had for most of the second period. It reminded the visitors that it wasn't going to be easy. It eased a lot of concerns. All because Elias was just in the right spot. Though, Jay Pandolfo should get some credit for not doing anything to him.
Delayed Call Goal: The interesting aspect about Elias' goal was that it came during a delayed call. Adam Larsson was hooked while down low in a rather obvious manner in front of a referee. I was impressed at how the Devils kept control of the puck. They just played keep away in the Isles' end of the rink until someone had a clear look on net. Larsson got that shooting lane and fired one hard and low. The extra man was Ryan Carter and he deflected it on net. It bounced right to Elias who banged it in on the second effort. In all of that time, the Isles didn't get possession or even pushed for it. Tavares, Streit, and Parenteau were all out there and didn't have an impact on the play. It was just a great sequence of events and a good finish on a night where Kovalchuk sparkled with his.
The Fifth Goal: This goal wasn't as important. It did mean the Devils got twenty shots on net to hand Nabokov's save percentage an anvil. It also meant the Devils didn't completely hang back when up by three in the third period. It was also Kovalchuk-like in how it came about. Jacob Josefson just sped through the neutral zone and just torched MacDonald. While MacDonald chased him, Josefson curled around the net like he was wearing #17 and saw Zidlicky wide open above the right circle. No one's really on Zidlicky, Moulson is too far back, but the defenseman notices David Clarkson all alone in front of the net. Seriously. Steve Staios is too busy with Alexei Ponikarovsky and none of the other forwards are backchecking. Pass, re-direction, and so Clarkson picked up his 27th goal of the season. It looked really good, which was a theme of all five Devils goals - they weren't just great finishes, but great looking finishes.
Settled In: You may have noticed I mentioned Marek Zidlicky a few times. Well, he picked up his first and second assists as a Devil tonight. He got the primary helpers on Kovalchuk's second goal and Clarkson's goal. While he didn't register a shooting attempt, Zidlicky was getting the job done with his passes, dump-ins, and defense. Zidlicky didn't see the toughs too much, but on a night where the Devils got out-shot and out-attempted, he actually was positive in Fenwick (+2) and Corsi (+3). He was solid against the Isles' depth in his 17:59 of even strength ice time and at the point for the 2:14 he spent on the Devils' power play. I said Tuesday was probably his best game as a Devil, but he topped that tonight.
Rookie Improvement: Larsson had a much better performance tonight if only because he played more than 15 minutes. He had two shots on net, partially created Elias' goal, and held his position much better than he did against the Rangers. Larsson wasn't consistently beaten with speed and while he was pinned back quite a bit, it wasn't necessarily his fault. His clearances were pretty good from what I saw. Larsson also made one of the more impressive defensive plays of the night. An offensive turnover in the second period (one of many) caught the Devils changing players. The Isles rushed up ice in a 3-on-1 with Larsson playing as the one. Larsson isolated David Ullstrom and Frans Neilsen somewhat and got a stop on the initial play. This left Bailey open but in a 3-on-1, someone's always open. Bailey did get the puck and thankfully botched the shot; but Larsson played it as well as he could have in that spot. It wasn't a perfect night, but I liked what he did - especially since he's had some stinkier games as of late.
Special Teams Section: Well, I can't complain about the results. The Devils converted on a power play and they killed all of their penalties. Good job from a results standpoint. I did like the Devils power play in how they set up; but shots - mostly from Kovalchuk since the Isles decided to leave him loose for one-timers - just kept going wide as opposed to on Nabokov. That's why the Devils only ended up with two on net on three opportunities.
The Isles had three power plays and were threatening for about half of the time. Their first power play was almost entirely in New Jersey's end. It was like a replay of what happened on Sunday, where the Isles did everything right but score. Their second wasn't so great at first as the Devils threw the puck in their end and killed clock there. But for the 40 seconds or so they did have, they were very threatening. It was enough to make me unhappy with the silly tripping call Bryce Salvador took in front of a ref. I was similarly unhappy with the delay of game call he didn't need to take, but the Isles helped shorten that one.
To my surprise, the Isles only got 4 shots on net on their power plays. I thought they had much more than that. I guess the PK did better than I thought even when they couldn't get a clear during the first kill. I still don't want to see the Isles get glorious PP chances in the third game with them this week. Eventually, they're going to convert on one of these.
Surprise! Devils Not Awful at Dots: Here's a pleasant surprise from a game with a wonderful outcome. The Devils were actually the superior team on faceoffs by going 30-for-49. Adam Henrique wasn't good, he went 4-for-12, but he would be the only one to struggle. Elias was great by going 8-for-12. Josefson was hot at 9-for-11. Ryan Carter was very good by winning 6 out of 9. Even Eric Boulton won a faceoff! I don't think it had that much of an effect on the game, but it's nice to see the Devils not get destroyed on draws for a change.
The Return of Alexei Ponikarovsky, or the Quietly Effective Third Line: During the run of play, I wasn't exactly thrilled with Alexei Poinikarovsky, Josefson, and Clarkson. They got that fifth goal and I didn't think they were bad. They just didn't pop out at me. I suppose I should have paid more attention to the fact that the third line was usually in the Islanders' end of the rink. All three forwards were excellent in Corsi on a night where the Devils were understandably beaten in shooting attempts. Josefson was a +7, Clarkson was a +4, and Ponikarovsky was a +5. Each had two shots on net and they kept the Islanders' third line quiet. Maybe they would have struggled with the speed of Grabner, but given how little impact Kyle Okposo and Casey Cizikas put on the game, who knows whether he would have made a difference. Ponikarovsky himself represented this muted success. He didn't throw a lot of big hits or make a great play all by himself. He just played his role well and simple, which probably pleased Peter DeBoer.
I will say Josefson put together another good performance. He's really filling in that third line role well for a 21 year old center. Hopefully, he can keep it up.
So Who Wants to Split Up Parise and Kovalchuk Now?: Parise set up Kovalchuk's first and third goals. OK, the first goal was a second effort by Kovalchuk, but there wouldn't have been a first one if it wasn't for #9. While Parise only got one shot on net and three total attempts at shooting, he definitely made his mark. He backchecked well; he was winning pucks in the neutral zone; and he kept his line going. Parise contributed in that sense, which doesn't necessarily always show up on the scoresheet but it benefits the Devils to extend possession on offense. Tonight, they did as Kovalchuk put to two of those passes in the net. Between tonight and Parise playing Kovalchuk into the Rangers end for the game's opening goal on Tuesday, why would anyone want to split these two? If anything, I think both games showed that they should most definitely stay together.
Two Realizations: First: David Clarkson now has as many goals as Alex Ovechkin. Second: Adam Henrique's two assists now puts him in the lead in rookie scoring. Make what you will of both.
One Final Thought: The fourth line got wrecked in possession tonight, but Ryan Carter still found a way to get involved. He very nearly forced a gift of a turnover on a forecheck early in the game, a highlight of the Devils' forechecking performance. Carter managed to get two shots on net and deflected Larsson's shot that became Elias' goal. That DeBoer put Carter out as the extra man speaks to how the coaches regard his play. He's still a big net negative in possession at evens, but when he plays with NHL players, he's more effective. We saw that tonight and on Tuesday. I don't think it's a coincidence. Anyway, with one more point on Saturday, Carter can claim a bona fide point streak.
That's my extended take. With a 5-1 win, there's a lot to praise and a lot to say. Now I want to know your opinion. How brilliant was Kovalchuk's night? How did you react when he blazed that second one-timer past Nabokov? How relieved were you when Elias scored his goal? What did you make of the team's overall performance? What do you think the Devils need to do to avoid a period where they get beaten on for future games? Outside of Kovalchuk, who would you say was the second best Devil on the ice was tonight? What does this team need to do for Saturday and Sunday based on what you saw tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 5-1 win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented and read along in the gamethread, as well as those who followed the tweets from @InLouWeTrust. Thank you all for reading.