They did it.
The New Jersey Devils eliminated the New York Rangers in six games by winning tonight's game 3-2 in overtime. Adam Henrique sealed it by putting in a loose puck that Ilya Kovalchuk jammed through Henrik Lundqvist and got away from Brad Richards. It wasn't the prettiest of plays; but it was certainly beautiful. 1:03 into overtime, the Devils defeated the Rangers for the last time in the 2012 playoffs. Their reward is the Prince of Wales Trophy and the right to play the Los Angeles Kings for the greatest trophy in all of sports, the Stanley Cup.
To think, it almost never happened. Not unlike Game 5, the Devils got off to a great start. The Rangers came to play, but the Devils were able to get pucks in deep and catch the Rangers with numbers on rushes up ice. Lundqvist looked shaky early, fighting off pucks, not getting clean saves, and actually getting beaten by a shot on a 3-on-1 rush that had no pass - the post saved him then. It would be the fourth line to break through with the game's first goal. Steve Bernier led an odd man rush, fed Stephen Gionta for a shot on net, and Ryan Carter put home the rebound. It was a "swarming" like play and it lit up the already energetic crowd. The Devils would continue to attack as they made the most of a tripping minor on Ruslan Fedotenko. During the power play, four of the Devils just kept passing it about on the left side. Eventually, Dainius Zubrus has it at the goal line facing out. At that point, there were eight skaters on that side - leaving one Devil open on the right. That man was Ilya Kovalchuk. Zubrus hit him with a pass and Kovalchuk finished it off with as good of a one-timer you'll ever see. The Devils and Rangers were tied in shots 14-14, but the intensity and the distance in shots were in New Jersey's favor.
From the second period on, the Rangers began to take the game over. Perhaps they were responding to the 2-0 deficit. Perhaps it was because it was a win-or-go-home game for them. Perhaps they felt they did OK in the first and they just had to build on that. Perhaps the two teams swapped jerseys. The Rangers carried the play and pinned the Devils back repeatedly on offense. Given the long change, that meant there were a lot of tired Devils. That may account for the listlessness in trying to get clearances or making unwise decisions in their own end. It also help they didn't get some of the bounces like they did in the first period that led to offensive attacks and defensive stops. The Rangers' hard work paid off when Ryan McDonagh curled around the net and found teammates at the top of the crease. His pass got to Fedotenko and it's an easy goal on Martin Brodeur's flank to make it 2-1. The Rangers would equalize minutes later when a Dan Girardi shot got through traffic and past Brodeur's glove on the ice. The puck took a favorable deflection off Ryan Callahan's skate, which made the shot far more difficult than it seemed. Lucky or not, the Rangers earned a 2-2 score at the end of the period. The Devils were just struggling to get forward and get the kind of shots on Lundqvist that Brodeur faced.
New Jersey's struggles continued in the third period. One would think Peter DeBoer and the coaches made it clear that the Devils needed to get back to their ways in the third period of a 2-2 game that they could clinch. It started off fairly well with a couple of shots, and then it just stayed there until far later in the period. The two teams cancelled each other out along the boards and in the neutral zone; but the Rangers had the better run of play. Brodeur was big, especially on a Brad Richards rebound attempt on a third period power play. Lundqvist did his job in keeping everything out. It was harrowing to watch, and the notion of overtime was just stomach-churning. The Rangers ended regulation up 35-26 in shots and controlled most of the play. The two goal lead in the first period was busted and all the Rangers needed to do was keep up the pace.
The very first shift by the Rangers made it seem that way; but it ultimately turned into nothing. They had looks, they had some favorable bounces, but they didn't get a shot on net. Not one. DeBoer was mixing his lines a bit throughout the game, presumably to get guys going from the second period onward, which is why we saw Ponikarovsky with Henrique and Kovalchuk. Then the Devils gained the zone for the first time, Ponikarovsky flung a shot on net that yielded a short rebound and the jam play was on. The rest, as they say, was history.
Essentially, what I'm saying is that the Rangers were the better team tonight. They knew the stakes of the game and responded accordingly to a 2-0 deficit after the first period. They out-shot the Devils 35-26 in regulation and 35-29 including OT. The Devils looked strong only in the first period and the series winning shift in overtime. The Devils ended up -14 in Corsi and -7 in Fenwick; further proof that the Rangers did far more with the puck at evens more often. However, sport is funny in that the better performing team doesn't necessarily win. Not unlike Game 5, the Devils found a way to win despite the deficits in possession and initiative. And in the playoffs, that's all that matters. As I'm wont to say, deserves doesn't have anything to do with it.
They did it. That's all that matters.
For the opposition's take on this game, please read Bryan Winters' recap at Blueshirt Banter. Please don't mess with them. They didn't mess around here, so don't do it to them. For further thoughts on tonight's win, 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 Game Highlights: The Devils are going to the Stanley Cup Finals. You need to watch this highlight video from NHL.com, if only to see how Adam Henrique won it in overtime.
More Rain: As in, more rain on the parade.
As noted in my summary of the whole game prior to the jump, the Rangers were vastly superior in possession. This would've been understandable if the Devils were leading throughout most of the game. Given that it was made close before the halfway mark and then tied a few minutes later, I don't think a team Corsi of -14 means it was all just score effects. The difficulties in getting clearances in the second period combined with getting muddled in the neutral zone for most of the third, helped the Rangers stay in the Devils' end and just get a myriad of attempts.
Almost all of the Devils were negative in Corsi tonight. Only David Clarkson and Jacob Josefson were positive, and strangely they were quite positive at +7 and +5, respectively. Given that the team was out-shot 30-21 at even strength, I'm not surprised that most of the team was on the wrong end of shooting attempts at evens. It was strange seeing almost everyone just get one or two at evens. The only Devil who got more was not Zach Parise or Kovalchuk or Zajac or Zubrus. It was actually Mark Fayne. As much as I like a team effort approach to offense, I wanted a lot more than just 21 shots at evens - especially after the game was 2-2. I'm not saying Parise or Kovalchuk had to take the game over, but it would have been cool if some guys were a bit more selfish tonight (e.g. Jacob Josefson passing up a shot from the high slot to kill a rare third period odd man rush).
What was a surprise were some of the individual numbers. Steve Bernier contributed to the game's first goal, but the rest of his night featured a lot of skating about in his own end. He finished with a -11 in Fenwick and a -10 in Corsi, which is really bad for a guy who got 9:50 at evens. It's shocking considering Gionta and Carter weren't nearly as bad. Among other forwards, the hard working Dainius Zubrus was a -9 in Corsi while Adam Henrique, the overtime hero, was a -8. You usually want those guys heading up ice; not backing in their own end. It didn't help either cause that their lines weren't generating a lot of shots, too.
Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador suffered the most among defenders with a -7 and -8 in Corsi, respectively. They were notably gassed a few times in the second because the Rangers kept pinning them back and as defenders, they could only get off the ice if the Devils got the puck in deep - which wasn't often. That second period really got to even Andy Greene and Mark Fayne (like Zidlicky, he was a -7 in Corsi), the Devils' top shutdown pairing of this postseason.
I will note that the Fenwick numbers are a somewhat better for all guys not named Bernier. The Devils out-blocked the Rangers, so that drove the Corsi values down. That said, most of the team was still out-attempted. Only Kovalchuk's Fenwick was positive with a negative Corsi value (+2 Fenwick, -4 Corsi).
Especially Good: It wasn't all doom and gloom for the Devils tonight. In addition to winning, they were very good on special teams tonight. The power play not only scored on an excellent tic-tac-toe play but they also put up eight shots on three power play situations. That's quite good, even if they allowed two shorthanded shots by the Rangers. The Devils' power play units were able to get into the Rangers' zone, get set up, and put good shots on Lundqvist. It's the sort of power play performance I want to see every night.
What was more crucial were the penalty killers. They were the bane of the Florida series and they've been beaten a few times in the this round and last round. Tonight, the Devils' PK unit got a shot on goal, a post, and held the Rangers to only one shot on each of their power plays. Brodeur had a highlight reel stop on Richards on New York's third power play of the night. Other than that, Brodeur didn't have to do much but remain vigilant. For me, the highlight of that kill was seeing Travis Zajac eat up clock by getting the puck in deep and taking it away from two Rangers along the boards to keep them back. Overall, the penalty killers were completely successful tonight, which made it a very good night for the special teams units.
Wait, the Devils Led in This Too?: Believe it or not, but the Devils were actually the superior team on faceoffs tonight. They won 32 out of 57 as a team; with Zajac going 14-for-20 and Elias going 4-for-6. Henrique (3-for-8) and Josefson (6-for-14) weren't so good; but it ultimately didn't hurt the team too much. Since the Devils haven't been good as a team in faceoffs and they're this far in, I can agree that itmay not be so important. Still, it's good to see that they succeeded in this aspect of the game.
Marty Had to Be Better, Was Better: Brodeur had a much tougher workload than Lundqvist tonight as he faced 35 shots out of 58 attempts. The double-pad stack on Richards in the third was the most visually appealing. It was also an important stop as Richards was in a dangerous spot to fire one off on the second effort. The other stops weren't as flashy, but they turned about to be just as important - especially after the Rangers tied up the game. One slip up and we're freaking out about Game 7 right now. Brodeur was very solid in his positioning and he moved well. He didn't suffer after Carl Hagelin interfered with him in the first period; he just went from strength to strength. The two that got past him really can't be pinned on him, too. Even so, Brodeur still kept his team in the game when the Rangers were storming and swarming from the second period onward. Thankfully, the Devils rewarded him with a win and another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Kovalchuk & His Strange Night: Kovalchuk managed to get out-attempted among all attempts, out-attempt his competition disregarding blocks, and get six shots on net. Four of which were on the power play, including his goal. The other two came on the jam play that led to the series winning goal - which he assisted. Kovalchuk played 20:55 overall and saw quite a lot of McDonagh and (seriously) Anton Stralman at evens. So: no shots at evens until OT, two points, helped win the game, was mixed in terms of possession, and played against good competition save for Stralman. He's now your NHL leader in playoff scoring and rather than trying to figure out whether he was really good tonight or not, I'm going to accept it as it is. Shine on, Kovalchuk.
A Thing That Makes You Go "Heh:" Carl Hagelin finishes his postseason with one less point that Martin Brodeur.
Maybe It's Skates: Try as they might, and they did with four shots on net each, but Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik were denied goals yet again. Richards can at least claim a second even strength point with a secondary assist on Fedotenko's goal. Too bad he'll be remembered as the skater on his knee unable to play the puck that Henrique tapped into the net in OT. Oh, and no goals in this series. Gaborik only had the one in Game 5, which was more of an error by Brodeur than anything. The possession numbers may or may not bear this out, but I'd say the Devils did a good job keeping these two relatively quiet in the series. After all, Callahan scored more goals with his skates than these two combined in this series.
Snark Aside: Callahan did play a very good game. He finished +9 in Corsi and got four (well, three to be precise) shots on net while rolling with Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky. Both of those players were active tonight, especially at keeping the Devils pinned in their own end at times. Good things kept happening when Dan Girardi was on the ice. He finished with an astounding +17 in Corsi, and created the equalizer with his shot through traffic. Girardi was almost everywhere he needed to be in the 2046 at evens. The only time he really wasn't was on the series winning play. That pairing of Girardi and McDonagh was quite good and I'm not looking forward to either getting better and tougher to play against. Overall, the Rangers took this game appropriately. While they were down 2-0 after the first, they weren't truly dominated and they followed up on what they did in Game 5. I'd argue this was their best game of the series - and again, the Devils snatched a win anyway. So it goes.
Heeeeeeennnnnnriiiiiiik: The Rock serenaded Mr. Lundqvist with his first name several times at a range from loud to extremely loud. Truthfully, I wouldn't fault him on the first or second goals. He didn't allow a big rebound on Gionta. It's not his fault Marc Staal decided to use some not-defense on Carter. It's not his fault Michael Del Zotto got beat by the pass and swung his stick at air instead at either the puck or Carter. It's not his fault Kovalchuk was left wide open to his right for a killer one-timer on a power play or that Del Zotto missed blocking or intecepting Zubrus' pass to Kovalchuk (again!). The fans basically gave it to him just like Rangers fans give it to Brodeur whenever he allows a goal or breathes air within a 100 foot radius of a pack of fans. It's all in good fun - especially when it needles the other team.
That all said, I think he's got to take some blame for the overtime winner. I know chaos in front of the net is difficult for anyone involved. The goaltender, the defense, and even the offense are at the mercy of the puck just bouncing where it wants and other players being aware of so much happening so quick. Watch the video of Henrique's goal closely. Lundqvist was originally down on the ice to cut off anything low. Then for a brief moment, he leans up. As he does that, you can clearly see the large gaping gap that is his five-hole. A puck bounces off his right leg pad and through that five hole. While Richards is behind him on the goal line, he's standing and so he's not really in a position to do anything about the puck immediately. Maybe in a second, but Henrique - away from the chaos - swooped in and knocked it in before Richards could kick, cover, handpass, or whatever the puck away. Had Lundqvist remained lower or used his stick appropriately, maybe he's able to ensure that puck doesn't get in between his legs. It was a crazy moment, so I wouldn't be too harsh on him. I must say, he could have done better.
Henrique is Tough: Henrique was defeated quite a bit on faceoffs, he didn't drive the play forward, he only got one shot on net in regulation, and he was forced to defend much more than attack. Henrique wasn't much of a factor tonight for most of the game, like Chris Kreider though a bit more than Derek Stepan. As if that wasn't enough, he took a shot (or a stick) to the groin. The play had to be blown dead so he could get up and get off the ice, which was completely understandable. Henrique would play through that incredible amount of pain. That alone proved that he's just a lot tougher than some may give him credit for. And he made up for his otherwise meh-worthy night by being at the right place at the right time to smack a puck in the net in OT. Like the team's performance - I'm just happy he did it at all.
Honestly, It Was a Nasty Slash: Henrique wasn't the only Devil to get hurt. Zajac took a nasty two-hander slash to his left wrist by Brandon Prust in the second period during the Devils' power play. Prust is an honest player so I'm sure he did that move with full sincerity. By the by, the refs tonight were Brad Watson and Kevin Pollak. They were the refs in Game 3 that missed Prust's elbow to the back of Anton Volchenkov's head. Honestly, I do not know how they missed that one too. Especially given they called some really weak minors on Salvador (his high-stick wasn't much), Ponikarovsky (his interference on Anisimov was nowhere near as bad as some others in the game), and Carter (his little nudge on Staal that led to the net being knocked off was cheap in my view), you'd think they'd catch the violent act. Oh well. The honest man got away with one - again. At least Prust is honest.
Zajac did return to keep playing. I hope that means his left wrist will be OK, he's kind of important. Unlike Prust, who did not much of anything beyond that slash.
True Beauty: As much as I have written about how well the Rangers played, the Devils did manage to get the result. They were good early and found a way to beat Lundqvist twice. Amazingly, the Devils have only lost to the Rangers in this series in shutout losses. Getting the first and second goals were huge, even if the Rangers matched them later on. While the Devils' offense flatlined throughout stretches of the second and the third, Brodeur kept them in the game and the team didn't make too many careless errors in the third. The series was decided on a chaotic play where one man, Adam Henrique, saw what was going on and was in the right place and the right time to poach one.
While it wasn't pretty, I see the beauty in it now. First, the Devils took advantage of the opportunity available. That's what you have to do to win games and the Devils did it. They didn't hesitate, they didn't squander it, they didn't ponder it. They acted to achieve glory, and they received it. Second, it knocked out Our Hated Rivals to continue a playoff run that saw them win two straight overtime games to beat Florida in seven and smoke their second most hated rivals in five games with an impressive forecheck. There's nothing like beating a rival in a regular season game. To do it in the playoffs is just special. The Devils know this. As Tom Gulitti reported after the game at Fire & Ice Martin Brodeur said the following after the game:
"But, I think winning against them in the big stage, not just for me, but for the fans of New Jersey, people that are supporting us and always take a second seat to these guy for whatever reason, now they’ve got to be pretty happy going to work and going to school and doing all their things that they do. I know from some of the messages I got throughout this playoff series, we made a real happy right now by beating them."
Most of all, it sent the thousands of Devils fans at the Rock and around the world into ecstasy. I was ecstatic, everyone around me in Section 1 were ecstatic, and everyone on the concourse to walking to Newark Penn were ecstatic. The energy, the volume, and the sheer passion exuded was a simply wonderful experience, something I will cherish for years to come. Everyone was smiling, everyone was high-fiving and hugging, and everyone was already pumped up for the Kings already. That all came from Henrique's finish on the jam play. That is simply and truly beautiful in my eyes.
Two Final Thoughts: As with Ponikarovsky's overtime winner in Game 3, there's a lesson to be learned with Henrique's overtime winner: Never give up on a play until you hear a whistle. The ref watched the play around Lundqvist like a hawk to make sure he saw it. If he didn't, he blows the whistle and it's frozen. The initial shot wasn't so good and Kovalchuk's first attempt was denied. His second attempt got through but it could have gone into hiding. Henrique didn't question where it went and so he jammed it in regardless of whether there would be a whistle. There wasn't and so the Devils are moving on.
Lastly, coverage for the Stanley Cup Finals series will begin tomorrow, likely in the evening with the Series Primer. I'll follow that up with more throughout the weekend and I couldn't be more giddy to type that. The Devils are the 2012 Eastern Conference Champions and will be in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. That's what's up.
Now that you read this ridiculously long recap, I want to know your opinions. What did you think of tonight's game? What did you think of the Devils' performance in this series? Who was the best player on the Devils tonight? How did you feel - and be honest like Prust - about the Devils after the Rangers tied it up? How about when there would be overtime? How did you react when Henrique scored in overtime? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Game 6 and the Eastern Conference Finals series in the comments.
Thanks go to Kevin for putting up the celebration post. Thanks also go to everyone who commented in the gamethread and followed my sparse tweets on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.