Monday, December 3, 2007

Gionta shootout winner keeps Devils on roll

Apparently, somebody forgot to tell Brian Gionta and the Devils that they weren't supposed to be this good. Well, at least good enough to reel off seven in a row to get themselves right back in the Atlantic race tied with the Flyers just a couple of points behind the first place Rangers.

The royal pain in the ass Mighty Mite's shootout goal stood up as the difference in a 3-2 home win over the Thrashers yesterday before a good crowd close to 15,000 at The Rock.

Gionta's bread and butter backhand deke sparked his red hot team to another win as Martin Brodeur gloved Ilya Kovalchuk's bid to keep the skills competition going.

"I just wanted to stay with him as long as I could, while he was going across the crease" Brodeur later said to the AP.

"He's a good goalie, one of the best ever," Kovalchuk admitted. "You need to be real good and real sharp to beat that guy. He moves quick from post to post so I tried to go high."

We didn't catch this one live as we were busy locked into a crucial NFC game between the Giants and Bears for our Giants Bits blog.

But just from watching the highlights, this looked like a very competitive and entertaining contest which could've gone either way.

Both Brodeur (23 stops) and Johan Hedberg (34 saves)made some stellar saves to give their respective teams at least a point before it got decided in the shootout.

The Thrashers got the scoring started in the first when Todd White one-timed home a Tobias Enstrom feed from behind the net for a power play goal with 5:09 left.

However, the Devils would get the equalizer in the final minute thanks to Sergei Brylin's third in the slot 15 feet out off a broken play from Paul Martin and John Madden with just 51 ticks to go. From the yahoo highlight package, it looked like Madden might've gotten away with an undetected trip of a Thrasher near center ice which helped lead to the tying goal. It was hard to say if the Atlanta player lost an edge while competing for the puck or if Mad Dog's stick really did trip him.

In any event, the two teams would be tied until that same Madden finished off a nice pass from Karel Rachunek for a tip-in to give his team the lead going into the third.

However, a determined Kovalchuk finally got the equalizer with 10:26 remaining when he one-timed a Bryan Little feed in the high slot past Brodeur for the Russian sniper's league-leading 22nd. What a season he's having.

Key saves by Hedberg and Brodeur from in close forced OT. In it, the best stop was made by the future Hall of Famer on Marian Hossa, who was setup and fired a laser of a wrister from about 25 feet out. But Marty read and gloved it harmlessly to help force the shootout which his team prevailed in.

He denied all three superb Atlanta shooters Slava Kozlov, Hossa and Kovalchuk to notch the victory. No small feat.

The Devils are now 14-10-2 with 30 points. A great recovery after a slow start where they went only 3-5-1 on that nine-game road trip. Brent Sutter and the coaching staff must be given some credit here for keeping it together.

They've played much better defensively since top defender Colin White and valuable two-way winger Jamie Langenbrunner have returned.

The only player who continues to not contribute is former captain Patrik Elias. You have to wonder what the heck is going on with the 31 year-old gifted Czech. It's hard to get into the mind of a player and even harder to conclude that they're not trying. That's not the case. But the lack of production from someone who's always been pretty reliable as a team leader is alarming.

Elias has only four goals and eight helpers for 12 points in 24 games this season with a team worst minus-six rating. It's not like he hasn't attempted shots. His 79 SOG rank third behind leading scorer Zach Parise (100) and Gionta (82).

The growing question is can New Jersey continue to win games without getting much in the scoring department from Elias?

They also have gotten just 13 points from sophomore Travis Zajac (4-9-13). But he centers their best line and the effort is never questioned. The former first rounder out of North Dakota makes smart decisions with the puck and generates plenty of chances. It's probably a matter of time before a few bounce his way.

As for Brodeur, the Mr. Everything in net has turned his season around and now has 12 wins, a 2.29 GAA, .911 save percentage and two shutouts which tie him for second all-time with George Hainsworth for 94 regular season blankings- just nine behind Terry Sawchuk's league record 103.

The 35 year-old franchise goalie has been a model of consistency during his 14-year career in backstopping the team to its three Stanley Cups while also winning the Vezina three times and Olympic Gold with his native country Canada in 2002.

With his team again being written off with the key departures of Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, Brodeur continues to elevate his game to give his team a chance to remain competitive which is what they'll be until No.30 retires.

That's truly the mark of an all-time great.

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