The New Jersey Devils defeated the Florida Panthers 3-2 in Game 1 of their series in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Given that the playoffs are an extreme results-oriented environment, that they won the game at all is a success. That alone is very good. It's even bigger now that they've effectively taken home ice away from Florida. Well done, Devils. You're 25% closer to winning your first playoff series since 2007. You made sure the Panthers faithful will have to wait a little longer before they actually see a playoff win. Of course, how the game ended up this way is a more interesting tale, a nerve-wracking one for the Devils fans watching all over the world.
The Devils flat out crushed the Panthers in the first period. They put up 26 shots on net. Yes, the New Jersey Devils, a team that averaged 27.5 shots per game put up 26 shots in the first period alone. They scored three goals on those 26 shots. Usually, that's something you would see after three periods. The Devils did it one. Clearly, the Florida Panthers were far too passive on defense and Jose Theodore was the main reason why it wasn't a straight-up blowout. Even so, the Devils scored three goals.
And they were gorgeous goals, too. Patrik Elias was left all alone in a 5-on-5 situation on Theodore's flank, made four or five dekes, and put it in. During the dying seconds of a four-minute power play, Martin Brodeur hit David Clarkson with a long pass as the Panthers were changing. Clarkson saw Dainius Zubrus break to the middle, easily slid him the puck, and Zubrus buried it. Less than a minute later, Ryan Carter - originally dumped on waivers by the Panthers way back in October - took the puck away from Sean Bergenheim, dashed into the zone past Ed Jovanovski, and finished his individual effort with aplomb. The Panthers' response to this goal explosion in the first period was to take a late offensive zone penalty and get a few more shots so they were only out-shot 26-9 instead of 26-7. The Devils were juggernauts, the Panthers were worms, and the 3-0 lead was deserved.
The second period came along and the Devils didn't so much sit back as much as the Panthers fought back. The Devils were OK in the first few minutes but they started losing the plot when Sean Bergenheim torched Anton Volchenkov and scored far-post in a make-shift one-on-one with Brodeur. That got Florida on the board and it was a sign of things to come. Their forecheck got more aggressive and they tightened up along their blueline. They got tagged with more penalties, but the Devils' power play did very little with it. After a cheap call, Florida got within one when Kris Versteeg put in a rebound right at the crease. The Panthers had hope, they had life, they out-shot the Devils 11-6, and had every reason to feel like it was a game again. It was. The Devils didn't relax or come out flat, they just couldn't respond with pace, persistence, or preparedness within the second.
As the third period started, one could tell the Devils adjusted. While the Devils still struggled to get into Florida's end of the rink for shots, they made it difficult for the Panthers to get through the neutral zone. The game got quieter, which was to the Devils' benefit. The clock kept on going - to a point where nine minutes passed between faceoffs. The period moved fast while the game got slower. It also helped that the refs kept their whistles quiet except for an obvious tripping call on Versteeg late in the game. Of course, at 3-2, I (and likely many fans on both sides) weren't bored but instead anxious. The classic feeling in a close game in the third period was multiplied by an unknown magnitude because it's the playoffs and one mistake could either put the game away for New Jersey or have Florida complete another three-goal-comeback in Sunrise.
Thankfully, neither happened. At least, the mistakes were eliminated by the goalies or the skaters. Florida went to the extra man and the Panthers didn't do too much at 6-on-5 while every fan was on pins and needles. Time ticked off, the Devils held on, and as Doc Emrick used to say, "They had them all the way." Indeed. One down, onto the next one.
For an opposition's take, please check out Chris S Roberts' recap over at Litter Box Cats. Don't be a jerk over there, if you do visit. For more of my thoughts on this game as well as links to stats and a highlight video, please continue on 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 Highlight Video: Watch the three beautiful goals the Devils scored and some big saves by Brodeur in this video from NHL.com:
The Possession Factor: The Devils out-shot the Panthers heavily but a big chunk of those 38 shots on net came on the power play. 16, in fact, with 12 of them coming in the first period. Nevertheless, the Devils did manage to have an edge in possession. They were +8 in Corsi after the first period. Of course, the Panthers started chipping away at that in the second period to knock it down to +2 and an even third period go them to +3. Given that the Devils did it with a lead suggests that they were the better team overall.
But They Had All of Those Shots: Possession also explains some other feelings from the game. The Zajac line is a good example of that. There were moments where I was wondering what they were doing. I know they (eventually) got matched with the Weiss line at evens and saw a good amount of Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver. But it wasn't like Zach Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk had the kind of performances one would expect from them in Game 1 of the playoffs.
The trio of Parise, Kovalchuk, and Travis Zajac bombed away tonight. Parise had six shots on net out of eight attempts to lead the Devils. Kovalchuk only had two on four but he was distributing pucks moreso than firing them - just ask Parise. Zajac had five on net and, seriously, that's a lot for Zajac. Yet, most of those shots came on the power play. At even strength, Parise only had three while Zajac and Kovalchuk had one each. Moreover, their Corsi values show that they didn't exactly their match-up. Zajac was a decent +3; Parise was at zero; and Kovalchuk was at -2. That they didn't get as many shots on net along with this indicates why they didn't look so good. On another night, I'm sure they'll get it sorted.
Bossing Them Around: While the Zajac line wasn't so hot, the Elias line had a great game. Kevin Dineen didn't get a clear match-up on them at evens among forwards. They saw a mix of the Weiss and Goc lines. Maybe it didn't matter since Elias and Zubrus were both a +6 in Corsi and Petr Sykora was a +5. They weren't prolific at getting shots on net either at evens (four total) or overall (four total, three by Big Z); but they were pushing the play forward. That's a good sign going forward. So is the fact that two of the three players on this line each got a goal. If the Zajac line can't get going on offense, that this line is doing the job really helps out. They were the Devils' best line tonight and I look forward to what they can do in Game 2.
Andy Greene was awesome on defense tonight. Two shots on net, a +6 in Corsi and Fenwick, 17:17 against the best Florida had to offer along with Mark Fayne, and he threw one mean hit on Sean Bergenheim. I really liked how #6 played and his good work was appreciated.
Delayed Train: Tonight was a bad night for Volchenkov. He got absolutely torched by Bergenheim, who just sped around him for Florida's first goal. He was too high up on the PK and so Versteeg had a clear path to get to the crease to pounce on any rebounds from Marcel Goc's shot. He got there first and scored. Volchenkov was unfairly victimized by a Scottie Upshall dive in the second period that got him two minutes. I felt bad for him then, but now, I just feel he was bad. His positioning was poor and didn't contribute much positive on the ice. The coaches realized this and limited him to 11:54 of ice time. I'll chalk it up to just a bad night by Volchenkov. He's one player who could stand to improve tonight.
A Degenerating Power Play: The Devils power play was scorching in the first period. They got six minutes of power play time to work with, used 5:53 of it to put up 12 shots on net and score a goal. The Devils did everything you want from a power play. They entered the zone well, they kept possession alive, they made good passes, and they took shots when they had good looks on net.
Yet, in the second period onward, it just degenerated for lack of a better word. The Devils had four minutes of power play time in the second period thanks to Wojtek Wolski being an idiot and put up just two shots on net. At 3-1, the Devils could and should have used the time to re-establish possession and put the Panthers on their heels. If they score, great. If not, they stave off a comeback effort for a bit. Yet, the Devils had a lot of trouble just keeping the puck to enter the Panthers' end of the rink. They took more time collecting cleared pucks than setting up shots. They nearly gifted John Madden a shorthanded chance. The Devils didn't have to be as amazing as they were in the first period, but they just squandered power plays which helped keep the Panthers' hopes in the game alive. The one power play in the third period was OK, so perhaps it was just a function of a bad period. Still, the Devils could stand to work on zone entries.
The Other Two Periods: In addition to zone entries, the Devils could stand to work on the second period performance as well. Getting out-shot 11-6 isn't bad, especially since the Devils started the second with a three goal lead. But having Brodeur bail out the team in the final five minutes or so is risky; as are the offense drying up.
Credit must be given to Peter DeBoer and the players for adjusting in the third period. They were stingy, they kept the play moving without giving up too much, and while the Devils did squander some possessions with some offensive turnovers, they made sure Florida would have nothing easy. It was a good third period plan that worked well and helped ensure the win. Seeing those adjustments work out is heartening. Now, the Devils just have to recognize them a little faster.
Ref Factor: The Panthers took legit calls and got called on quite a few of them. I think the one questionable call they got tagged with was four minutes for Shawn Mattias instead of a minor. I guess his stick drew blood? It wasn't initially clear, at least not to my eyes while watching the broadcast. The Devils peppered the Panthers with shots and ultimately converted, so the extra two minutes mattered. Then again, based on how the rest of the period played out, maybe the Devils would have done all that anyway at 5-on-5. The other calls were pretty obvious.
I will say the Devils got victimized on two cheap calls. Stephen Gionta fell, his legs got tangled with Upshall's stick, and Upshall fell. An accidental play. The refs thought it was Gionta tripped him and Versteeg went and scored on it. Lame. Upshall got bumped by Volchenkov, fell down like he was shot, and the refs tagged Volchenkov for interference. At least the Panthers didn't score there. I know the Devils got five power plays out of six Florida penalties and this may come across as being a sore winner. Still, the calls on Gionta and Volchenkov were poor ones regardless of the situation.
Then the refs call nothing except for Versteeg's trip on Marek Zidlicky in the third period. It was a clear trip right in front of the ref, so it was a call. Still, it's still strange after nine calls in two periods. Hopefully, the players won't give the refs reasons to have a similar amount of penalties in Game 2.
What A Coincidence: Scottie Upshall used to be a Flyer. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.
Goalie Performances Were Good to Great: I liked how Martin Brodeur played tonight. He moved the puck well from behind the net. He was strong down low save for the Versteeg goal, and he moved quite well in net. He had a few big stops to help keep the Devils' lead alive.
Jose Theodore was the more impressive goaltender in my opinion. That seems obvious; after all, he faced a game's worth of shots in the first period alone. But I think he was the lone Panther to show up in all three periods. Theodore gave up more than his fair share of rebounds, but he recovered very well to get a second or third stop on a Devil attacker. He denied Elias in a one-on-one situation early in the game, he denied Parise in the third period in a two-on-one which could've put the game away, and he made all kinds of frantic stops elsewhere. Theodore was beaten, but these weren't bad goals to allow. Elias deked him out of his jockstrap on his goal, but Elias had no-defenders on him so he could make all of those moves. The goals allowed by Zubrus and Carter were essentially one-on-ones where the shot was just better. I'm sure he wished he stopped them. Given he made 35 stops out of 38 and kept the game from being a Devils rout, I don't think anyone should point any fingers at the goaltending for this loss. Just my two cents.
Congratulations: Martin Brodeur earned his 100th career playoff win tonight. Well done.
The Weiss Line: Did you know Stephen Weiss played tonight? I know he got a matching minor with Elias after the Versteeg goal. But other than that, what did he do? What did Tomas Fleischmann do? Not much: two shots on net and a stupid offensive zone cross-checking penalty. Versteeg was the difference as he scored a power play goal, but he only had one other shot on net. Most of all, they were steamrolled in Corsi: Weiss was a -12, Versteeg was a -6, and Fleischmann was a -7. I'd say the Devils did a good job keeping them in check tonight. Let's hope it continues.
Faceoff Woes: The Devils won a few late ones, but overall, this wasn't a good night for New Jersey at the dot. The Devils as a team only won 16 out of 40 draws and Zajac was the only Devil to win more than half of his faceoffs. He went 8-for-15. The faceoffs didn't turn out to be a factor, but it's still something to keep an eye on.
Fourth Line Contribution: Playoff discussion is fraught with players making important plays who aren't known for making them with any regularity. Tonight, that player was Ryan Carter. No, Carter wasn't dominant tonight. He was even in Corsi and played only 6:56. But he had a good game in his limited action. While not all that great in his own end, Carter did put up three shots and made an excellent individual play. He stole a puck from Bergenheim that nearly fooled the cameraman in addition to the Panther, got past Jovanovski, and fired the shot far-post past Theodore and a diving Dimtry Kulikov. The goal held up as the game winning goal. All of this in a matter of seconds and by a guy who only had offensive success when he played somewhere other than the fourth line. Well done, Carter. You're now in the discussion. Sharpen up on D and keep firing pucks on net so we can talk more about you in the future.
One Final Thought: It feels so good to see the Devils back in the playoffs and win the first game of the series. Let's do it again, Devils.
That's my take on tonight's win. What is yours? Who on the Devils impressed you the most? Who on the Devils do you think needs to better in the next playoff game? What about the Devils performance did you like the most? What about the Devils performance did you like the least? What did you think of the referees? Which one of the Devils' three goals impressed you the most? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this 3-2 playoff win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who read and commented in the Gamethread as well as those who followed along on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading. Go Devils.