Pretty much the only real negative of this season has been the injury bugaboo. Whatever virus afflicted my Mets last season now seems to have spread to the Devils. It's even getting to the point where I'm questioning the medical staff a little. Normally the Devils don't rush guys back after all, in fact they usually hold players out of the lineup for more than the stated injury time. However David Clarkson was a quick healer, coming back to the lineup on the low end of the 4-6 week timeframe for his injured right fibula.
Perhaps the Devils should have held Clarkson out just a little longer since in his second game back tonight, he re-injured that right leg and is now out for the immediate future, along with defenseman Bryce Salvador who won't make the trip to Chicago after being injured Monday night. Paul Martin's odd faulty healing arm which is keeping him out another month only makes me shake my head more at the injury luck we've had so far.
Aside from the Devils' hospital bill though, things are all warmth and sunshine around Newark these days. Well, aside from the actual weather which was at least milder than yesterday. Incredibly, the Devils have already won the season series against the defending champs, with just two games left to play - both of them at home after the Olympic hiatus. During these four games of domaination, the Devils have outscored Pittsburgh 14-2, shut down their vaunted power play all thirteen times they've been put on the PK and have gotten two consecutive 30+ save shutouts from Brodeur.
Although I figured tonight's game against the Pens would be harder than the first three in Pittsburgh, I don't think anyone could have guessed that Nicklas Bergfors' goal 1:48 into the game on the Devils' first shot would stand up as the game-winner and the only goal that would beat either goaltender all night. At first glance it looked as if Brent Johnson just whiffed on a seemingly harmless shot from the boards by Bergfors on a bad angle, but it could have been tipped by defenseman Mark Eaton. I haven't had a good look at a replay but whatever the case, Bergfors is fast becoming a Penguin-killer with four goals and three assists in four games this season. Andy Greene and Travis Zajac assisted on Bergfors' thirteenth of the season, which gave the Devils a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
There would be a hint of drama early on when Zach Parise dared to check His Highness Sidney Crosby into the boards and a frustrated Crosby took a slash at Parise, which led to some words between the two star players. Not to mention a funny postgame interview with Stan Fischler where he intimated that Crosby's been jealous of Parise since their first NHL game (one that Parise dominated at the CAA and led to chants of 'Zach's Better!') and kidded Parise that he was better looking than the Pens' captain. Zach politely agreed with the latter then just realized what he did and laughed the comment off.
I had my own drama early in the second period when I had to do something I never do, leave my seat during play as I was hacking myself to death due to mucus that hasn't quite left yet since my earlier bout with the flu this month. Other than the fact I've been off IR for a couple weeks I've been fighting it all month between a sinus infection and red eye and a cough that likes to randomly show up when I'm at Devils games (once during the national anthem). When I returned I saw the Pens had piled up several shots on Brodeur already, but clearly by this time he was keeping the Devils in front.
Maybe I was too busy focusing on our increasingly vulnerable defense or my own issues but I didn't notice Clarkson had left the ice until the sth who sits next to me asked about the Devils' winger. Of course I didn't notice Salvador's injury Monday either, I really should start spending time counting the players on the ice every five minutes since that seems to be how long it takes for someone else to go down.
One of our earlier season injuries happened when Mike Rupp checked Jay Pandolfo into the boards in Pittsburgh, prompting his former teammates to cry foul. While I didn't think the hit was that dirty, there was no defending Rupp on a slash of Brodeur midway through the second. On the one hand I wish we'd seen this agression more frequently when Rupp was here but on the other I really wouldn't condone it anyway. Rupp and Brian Rolston wound up with matching minor penalties in the ensuing scrum, with Rupp being restrained by the ref from going after either Rolston or another Devil.
None of the histrionics could overshadow the game however, which evoked shades of Brodeur's duel with Cam Ward in Game 5 of the playoffs last year. While it wasn't quite that intense in terms of shots on net or game meaning, it certainly rated high for a regular season game. Clearly Brodeur was making all the saves needed but so was Johnson, who saved some of his best for the third period. Actually, his best friend the crossbar stopped Parise on a two-on-one but Johnson later robbed Zajac with the glove on what looked like a sure goal.
Seconds turned into minutes in the third, but the Devils wasted a golden opportunity to put the game away when back-to-back penalties by Chris Kunitz and Crosby gave the Devils a thirty-second two-man advantage and consecutive power plays. However, the Devils' PP turned into the power kill tonight with too much passing and not enough hitting the net with shots. In fact, Johnny Oduya conceded a great chance when his lazy turnover led to Evgeni Malkin charging in on a two-on-one but Brodeur made another sharp save.
Finally the game came down to the last eighty-six seconds. Why eighty-six? Well, after the Devils amazingly had a 4-0 edge in power play chances for most of the game, the Penguins finally got one of their own at that point, and with the goaltender pulled it was a virtual six-on-four. Even now however, Brodeur would frustrate the Pens and give credit where it's due - the maligned old man checking line did well when it mattered tonight, with Jay Pandolfo coming up with an important block that cleared the zone and Rob Niedermayer springing Jamie Langenbrunner for a breakaway on the empty net and the captain beat a dead-tired Malkin to score his ninth of the season and seal it with just twelve seconds remaining.
While I've been on record as showing concern for a checking line full of 35-year olds or having Colin White and Mike Mottau paired, at least for one night against an offensive powerhouse they all did the job. Backstopped by the all-time leader in shutouts of course. At least now every shutout at home is a record-breaker. Sure, Brodeur's breaking his own record at this point instead of Terry Sawchuk's but hey, history is history.
Notes: With the Olympics drawing closer, some Devils already know they're going. While Bergfors couldn't quite attain eligibility for the Swedish team, teammate Oduya did make it. In the biggest formality possible Brodeur made the Canadian team. Also, not surprisingly Patrik Elias made the Czech team although his being named captain was a nice honor, especially for one of my faves. Hopefully this time around he'll be able to enjoy the Olympic experience for more than a few minutes. Then again, seems that the most danger one has of being out of the lineup is to put on the red and white of the Devils.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Martin Brodeur (32 saves, 105th career SO)
- Nicklas Bergfors (goal, +1 and 4 SOG with 19:51 TOI)
- Brent Johnson (31/32 saves)