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Travis Zajac OT Winner Gives New Jersey Devils a Game 7 Against Florida Panthers

The Moment of Greatness.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Moment of Greatness. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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I wrote in the preview post for this game that this was a BAMN game for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils needed to win By Any Means Necessary. The Devils defeated the Florida Panthers in overtime by a score of 3-2. They got the result they needed; they got an extra life. From that standpoint, the Devils succeeded and that's really all that needs to be said.

Of course, I can't help but get into the performance. In terms of shots and possession, the game was largely in control by New Jersey. They heavily out-shot the Panthers overall 42-16. It was 36-13 in regulation. It was 36-15 in five-on-five play. The Devils' Corsi was an astounding +24 and their Fenwick was +25. Everybody but Anton Volchenkov registered one shot on net and most of the team got two.

Yet, as noted in the headline, this was a close game. Overtime was necessary. Truth be told, while the Devils racked up the shots, Scott Clemmensen was up to the task on many of them. His first goal allowed in regulation was a soft one; a turnaround shot from Steve Bernier snuck through his legs. The second goal allowed in regulation was unstoppable. The Devils got the puck down low to Travis Zajac at the goal line on a power play, Zajac looked up, saw Ilya Kovalchuk breaking to the net uncovered behind the Florida penalty kill, and Kovalchuk finished off the great pass. Outside of those two and the winner, Clemmensen proved that he could be their starting goaltender if Jose Theodore can't be ready for Game 7. Clemmensen's performance was a big reason why Florida was even competitive.

The other big reason was their seventh and eighth shots of the game. They came on two near-perfect plays for the Panthers in the second period. Kris Versteeg was found open in the slot. There were Devils skaters in his area, namely Alexei Ponikarovsky, but they weren't aware. One pass from Stephen Weiss turned into one quick shot that got through traffic low. It was a great play for them and it just happened to be their first shot on net of the period. The second, and equalizing goal, was more controversial as it began with Kovalchuk seemingly fouled to lose possession. The other forwards were unaware and a four-on-two rush headed up ice. Marcel Goc tossed it to the trailing Tyson Strachan who put a shot on net. Martin Brodeur stopped it but the rebound was easy pickings for Sean Bergenheim, who charged to the net past Andy Greene. Bergenheim took it, curled around Brodeur's pad, and easily put it in. Those were the highpoints of their offense. They didn't successfully attack all that much; but when they did, it was dangerous. They were fortunate in that regard to get to OT and be in a situation where they just need one bounce or one fluke or one great play to win.

Fortunately for us, the Devils got that one play to win. It was a broken play in retrospect, but beautiful all the same. I'll try to get a goal breakdown post of it for tomorrow evening. But know this: Travis Zajac got the puck out of a scrum at the crease, the initial passes in the neutral zone broke down, but eventually Kovalchuk got the puck into the zone. He went laterally to his right and noticed Travis Zajac open on the left side. He hit him with a great pass and Zajac had a window of opportunity with Clemmensen at an angle. Zajac fired it at the right time into the right place and turned the nervy, anxious, tense worries that all Devils fans around the world and at the rock into righteous elation.

For the most part, I'd say the Devils were the better team tonight. They deserved a third (and more) goal; and thankfully, they got it. They survived elimination at the Rock for the first time since they've moved to Newark. They now have an extra life. They now have a second chance. They won The Most Important Game of the Season only to now have The Most Important Game of the Season on Thursday in Sunrise. Can the Devils win one game? After a night like this, I can't help but feel really good but I know the reality is that anything can happen. Let's worry about that tomorrow. For now, let's appreciate the victory.

Please continue on after the jump for more of my thoughts on tonight's game. For an opposition's point of view, Ryan Meier has this recap at Litter Box Cats.

The Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The 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: Yes, you need to see this video from if only for Zajac's overtime winner:

Zajacamania: He scored the game winning goal in The Most Important Game of the Season Prior to Game 7. Of course Travis Zajac was named the first star of the game by tonight's attending media. His shot on the play was very good and it capped off a good night by the center. He was once again an overall winner at faceoffs by going 14-for-24. He took more chances with the puck with five shooting attempts: one on net, three that missed the net, and one that went into the net. He set up Kovalchuk for his power play goal. He was solid at both ends of the rink. Zajac's one not-so-great number is his Corsi: he was a +1. It was lower than his linemates Parise and Kovalchuk. It means he wasn't so hot against the line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, and Kris Versteeg. He wasn't bad; just about even, really. I'm OK with that since he helped stop them at the start of his shift in OT and then scored with them on the ice.

Parise the Leader: I'm not surprised that Zach Parise would have a good game as a player. He won pucks, he generated shots, and he ended up with five on net to lead the team. As a captain, I'm very glad to see what the team has done. After all of the talk about not wanting to get outworked, trying to avoid the penalty box, and so forth, the performance on the ice matched the talk. The Devils definitely didn't get outworked in this game. If anything, they stormed through the neutral zone into Florida's end. The Devils thankfully avoided the penalty box; the lone minor was a tripping call on Patrik Elias. The Devils wanted to be ready and they definitely were with a 13-6 shot and 1-0 lead after the first period. I'm ecstatic with how the team responded after Game 5 and credit for that goes in part to the man with the "C." Thanks, Parise.

So What Are We To Say About Kovalchuk Now That He Had a Good Game: Apparently, the word on the street is that Kovalchuk is injured and therefore slow. Huh. In the 26:25 he played (18:27 at evens), Kovalchuk put up four shots on net, got blocked once, and missed the net twice. One of those four shots was when he skated behind the Panthers' PK on a successful backdoor play. He also picked up an assist on that incredibly important overtime winning goal. On top of that, Kovalchuk was used power-for-power with the rest of his line and came out ahead at +4 Corsi and +6 Fenwick. Overall, this is all consistent with a player having a good game. Possibly a very good game, even.

But more than this, Kovalchuk did a lot more. When a play broke down on offense, he hustled back on defense - going as far as to the corner of his own end to throw a check or knock a puck away. He was more than willing to go in deep on offense. For example, he was the one right up against the end boards and fed Zach Parise right off the left side of the crease for a close shot. If he had space to drive in with the puck, then he did - most notably on the team's second power play in the second period. Kovalchuk played as smart as the rest of the team and generally did what one would expect out of any player. And he did this for about 26 and a half minutes. If he's really hurt, it's got to be minor or the adrenaline is making it a non-issue because he kept up his level of play for such a long time. Or someone else is wearing #17. Or I watched a different game from a lot of people.

The only thing one could say is that Kovalchuk didn't use his "extra gear" all that much. Maybe he really is hurt and he can't do it. Let me offer this possibility: there was no spot to use it. You may have noticed that Florida has been playing defensively in this series, particularly in the last two games. The Devils' breakout hasn't been perfect, but the Panthers have sold out some of their offense to ensure their defensemen are back at the blueline as the Devils come forward. As such, the Panthers' attack was often one-and-done if the forwards couldn't keep plays going. This was even true on the final play of the game. This makes it difficult for anyone, including Kovalchuk, to break into the zone with speed and still maintain the puck. It also makes odd man rushes difficult to generate. Basically, if there's no space to fly into, then no one outside of, say, an energetic fourth liner isn't going to skate as hard as they possibly can. I think that has to be considered as to why we haven't seen Kovalchuk or Parise or Adam Henrique or whoever else just speed into the net.

The Third Line Actually Cycled Tonight: I saw it with my own two eyes. Ponikarovsky, Henrique, and David Clarkson were able to set up a few cycles tonight. They were able to get the puck in real deep and generate quite a few shots on net. They didn't generate a goal, but it was a far better performance than in the last five games. I hope they can build on that for Thursday.

Possession Beasts: Prior to the jump, I pointed out how the Devils dominated in possession at evens with a +25 in Corsi and a +24 in Fenwick. Impressively, the Devils that led in Corsi and Fenwick were Mark Fayne and Andy Greene at +15 Corsi and +14 Fenwick each. It's impressive because their most common forward teammates was the Zajac line, which did OK but weren't pounding the Weiss line into submission. Greene and Fayne did get involved on offense as Fayne had four shots on net out of five attempts and Greene had three shots on net out of five attempts. Greene didn't look so good on the second goal against and one of Fayne's clearances in OT was botched; but for the most part, this pairing continues to sparkle in this playoff series.

The best forward line in terms of Corsi and Fenwick was actually the Elias line, which combined for five shots total out of seven total attempts (and one post in OT). Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora was at +13 in Corsi while Dainius Zubrus was at +14. They did have a fair amount of time with Fayne and Greene; but their defensive partners were split mostly evenly. So why did they got such high values? I suppose the defensemen got plenty of attempts with them as opposed to the other lines, so the Elias got a boost. It really helped that the Elias' line most common match-up at evens was John Madden, Tomas Kopecky, and Marco Sturm - a.k.a. Florida's third line. That's a match-up that line should beat on and for the most part, they did. A lot of credit has to go with how they played defensively. At even strength, the Elias line was only on the ice for one shot against. That's right: one. And the misses and blocks weren't high either. That alone makes racking up a very positive value easier.

All told, everyone contributed with shots and attempts. I just wanted to highlight the five that clearly stood out. Only Stephen Gionta ended up as a negative Corsi player and that value was just -1. That's perfectly fine for his role.

Fourth Line Love: Bernier's turnaround shot was just a risk and it paid off because Clemmensen was caught with too much space between his legs. It's another goal for a fourth line that has been hot all series long. OK, one goal a game isn't exactly hot in general. However, given that the Devils' fourth line use to be just a bunch of sadness in most games, the unit of Bernier, Gionta, and Ryan Carter has been excellent. They haven't gotten destroyed and they chip in some offense. You can't ask for much more other than possibly more ice time.

Mostly Good Special Teams: The Devils got four power plays, converted one, and got six shots on net. Normally, that's a good night. The Devils' second and third power plays in the third period, which combined for a short 5-on-3, was wasted. When Brian Campbell's delay of game minor kicked in as the only penalty, the Devils just got stupid with the puck. They couldn't make a simple breakout, Peter Harrold gifted a puck in his own end that thankfully never became a shot, and their performance drew far more boos than cheers. In a 2-2 game in the third period, that's just terrible. Fortunately, the Devils got it together on their fourth power play and had some good possession. That early power play in the third was the only time their offense really sagged; and the Devils went right back to work later on.

As for the PK, thankfully, the Devils only got to kill one penalty. They did it without allowing a shot on net. I can't say much more than that.

Speaking of Not So Terrible...: Anton Volchenkov may be improving a bit. He actually lined up a Panther for a hit and got him in the first period. He didn't make too many poor decisions with the puck. OK, he misfired on a potential shot on net; but Volchenkov's not here for offense so I'm not torn up by it. The coaches aren't taking too many risks with him as Volchenkov only played 14:18 overall mostly against Florida's bottom six. Still, he wasn't a liability and Sean Bergenheim didn't torch him. That's progress.

But What About the Goaltending: Well, 14 saves on 16 shots isn't going to help the save percentage, but I can't find too much fault with Martin Brodeur's night. I'm pretty sure he didn't see Versteeg's shot and it's possible it bounced off a stick. I could see why some would have wanted Brodeur to kick/throw/whatever out the shot from Strachan harder. However, that's a bang bang play to begin with - it's easier said than done. Moreover, a harder rebound could have meant Strachan recovering the puck and passing it to the other open Panthers for a potentially dangerous shot. Had Greene stuck with Bergenheim instead of staying in the middle, he could have made a play to prevent the easy put-back too. Most of all, the Devils really shouldn't be giving up four-on-twos to begin with, even if it started with Kovalchuk being taken down in a possibly illegal manner. I'm not sure where the other forwards were doing other than not backchecking. It was a rough situation and Bergenheim poached a goal; I wouldn't say it was the terribly soft goal that I've seen others react with. Maybe I would when I look at it later this summer? Since Brodeur had so little to work with on a regular basis (and I'm more than fine with that), it's hard to really say he was very good, very poor, or whatever. He did what he could and it helped. I think that's suffices.

But What About the Shot Distances: The Devils did take quite a few shots from distance out of their 42 on net. I don't think it's so much that the shot count creates an illusion about the Devils' offense. According to ESPN's GameCenter, which charts out where shots were taken, I counted 14 from above the circles. Make it 15 if you want to include Harrold's shot from the left sideboard. That leaves 27 shots at a closer, more dangerous range for Clemmensen to stop. Since the Devils have struggled to get 27 shots all game, I'm fine with that kind of output.

But What About the Refs: The Devils definitely got away with a tripping call in OT. I believe it was Parise who took down Versteeg at the goal line. Versteeg, and I'm sure the Panthers faithful, weren't happy about the non-call. I can understand their complaint. I can also understand if one says that's a make-up non-call for Kovalchuk being taken down on offense that led to a four-on-two and a then-tying goal. And possibly the one for (I think) Mike Weaver lying on his stomach and spreading his legs out just as Parise was coming in trying to take a loose puck.

Referees Brian Pochmara and Marc Joanette let the players play and so plenty of interference, holds, hooks, and smaller restraining fouls went by on both sides. The ones they called were fairly obvious calls. Two high-sticking calls by Kopecky and Versteeg, an obvious trip by Elias, a punch to the back of a head by Scottie Upshall, and a clearance over the glass by Campbell. I leave it to you to decide whether this was a good thing or not. I'm just glad the Devils only took one penalty tonight.

But What About the Rats: What rats? Devils fans at the Rock only threw towels on the ice after the game was won. There were no rats at the Rock except for the Panthers' president and COO, who attended tonight's game. That reminds me...

Alas Poor Yormark: I hope Lauren Ashley let Panthers president Michael Yormark know exactly how she felt when Zajac scored.

A Last Reminder: The Devils came out in front of an electric crowd that wanted to see something great happen. The Rock erupted when Zajac scored his goal. Everyone was smiling and ecstatic, from the Robbie Palominos to all of the other Jimmies, Joes, Jays, Barbaras, Kevins, Janes, Trents, and Darias among other names at the game. There were all kinds of high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs - and that's all the stuff I did. I'm sure others did other things in celebration. The Devils won a Big Game at the Rock in the playoffs. It was done on April 24, 2012.

The harsh reality is that the Devils now have to dig deep and come out with this kind of effort and fire for one more game. The reward for winning the Most Important Game of the Season is a new Most Important Game of the Season. And it's going to be even more difficult For New Jersey given what they had to do to get this opportunity. They may need to play even harder, smarter, and (hopefully) luckier than they did tonight. And this was a good game by the Devils all on their own.

Please let Game 6 not be for naught, Devils. Get back on the ice tomorrow, review the tape, breakdown the game, and prepare for an angry and/or focused Florida team (e.g. Kevin Dineen will not allow this team to settle for 13 shots in regulation) looking to win their first playoff series in seemingly forever on their own ice. It's all down to one game. I believe the Devils can win one game. Tonight's game made it possible.

That's my take on a massive Game 6 victory. I'm sure I missed some points of interest and I'm sure there are other ways to look at this game. Please let me know of either in the comments. Also, feel free to answer questions like: Who was the best Devil on the ice tonight and why? Who was the worst and why? What part of the Devils' game did you think helped them the most to win this game? What part of their performance needs to improve? How did you react when Zajac scored in OT? Thanks to everyone who commented and read through the Gamethread. Apologies for not commenting or tweeting at @InLouWeTrust tonight, a combination of low battery, poor connection, and general being of too wrapped up and worrying about the game led to a lack of both. Sorry. Either way, thank you for reading this recap and thank you Devils for extending the series to a Game 7.