At least last night's game had the desired result in the end for me and the rest of the home crowd as Travis Zajac's power play goal in the final minute of overtime gave the Devils a 5-4 win they should have had locked up minutes before after blowing a two-goal lead in the final five minutes of regulation. So last night the team didn't get straight A's in terms of execution...more like straight Z's, as in the line of Zajac, Zach Parise and Dainius Zubrus at right wing. That line (created just last night) got four of the game's five goals in just two periods of action and the OT power play. Why only two periods? Well, I'll get to that rant in a minute.
I knew I should have taken a picture of the full moon last night but couldn't do it while driving and forgot about it by the time I got to the South Orange train station. So I had to get a random picture off the internet because I was compelled to use one, since last night was just that weird. Immediately I noticed Jacques Lemaire put together an interesting line combination to start when Zubrus was announced as the starting right wing with Parise and Zajac. Also, he scratched Nicklas Bergfors for the first time. Though the scratch was probably deserved given Bergfors' poor play of late, playing Rod Pelley isn't going to help any either unless the action called for a fighter not named Andrew Peters (there were no fisticuffs last night).
Early on was the first indication we would be in for fireworks, though not in a good way as the Leafs got a goal with their fourth line of Jamal Mayers, Wayne Primeau and Colton Orr on the ice. Mayers got the primary assist on Carl Gunnarsson's first-ever NHL goal at 6:11. Admittedly I did a double-take when I saw Gunnarsson led his team in icetime last night. So who, exactly is Gunnarsson? A 23-year old Swedish defenseman who was a former seventh round pick but apparently gets first-round like icetime sixteen games into his NHL career. Just from that game alone, he should be playing in the Olympics over (gak) Johnny Oduya, who would wind up with a -3 last night in another dreadful game.
Fortunately it would only take fifty-nine more seconds for Parise and Zubrus to announce their presence. Zubrus corralled a missed shot from Parise, then turned around and found the winger in front for an easy tap-in goal, Zach's 24th of the season. At 13:40 that line would combine for another goal, with Zubrus's quick pass in front finding Parise for a wrist shot in front of Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson giving Zach his second of the night, to go along with Zubrus and Zajac's second assists respectively. Lemaire's decisions to give Parise yesterday off from practice and put Zubrus on his right wing were paying immediate dividends.
Despite several glorious opportunities, Parise wouldn't get the hat trick last night as Gustavsson denied him a number of times late in the first period and early in the second, but Zach wasn't done making an impact on the game. Almost midway through the second period his line scored their third goal of the night when Zajac found Zubrus on a two-on-one and this time Zubrus put in himself for just his third goal of the season at 9:22. As good as Zajac and Parise are though, I have to give the big guy credit. I haven't always been a fan of Zubrus and maybe he's right when he modestly told Stan Fischler that anyone could have success playing with those two but he himself had his second-best game as a Devil last night (only behind his four-goal outburst against Tampa Bay), showing offensive skill that we need to see more of.
About a minute later and through no fault of his own, Gustavsson got pulled. I understand maybe you want to give him some rest considering the Leafs also play tonight (what a concept, a team actually using two goaltenders!) but that seemed like a random time to pull the goaltender. Gustavsson couldn't be faulted on the goals, the Leafs were still in the game at 3-1 down and he didn't get pulled immediately after the Zubrus goal, instead Ron Wilson waited for the TV timeout to do it. Of course, coaches can always fall back on the ol' 'change the momentum' card.
As things go in hockey sometimes, the Leafs did score next though it was the most unlikely goal you could imagine with Mark Fraser making a bad decision to pinch and leaving Orr on a breakaway, and the big guy beat Martin Brodeur with a soft wrist shot just under the armpit - seriously - looking either like Bobby Orr or Eric Staal (who beat Brodeur memorably in that same area on the other side of his body last spring). Colton Orr's embarassing goal at 14:41 pulled the Leafs to within 3-2 but adding to the intrigue of last night's game, the Devils would respond with their own rookie getting his first-ever NHL goal. And Patrick Davis earned it at 17:19, playing on a line with the offensive black holes known as Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer. Colin White's slapshot got blocked, hit off of Niedermayer's skate and bounced to Davis in the slot, and the young winger put it past new Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala to restore the Devils' two-goal cushion.
Up two goals against the crud of the Leafs, the second-worst team in the conference you would think the third period would be a time to add on and put the game away. But nooooooo, not only did Lemaire do something he swore he wouldn't by falling back into the 1-2-2 in the third period, but he made an even more unconscionable decision by moving Zubrus off the Parise-Zajac line. Granted, it's normally not a downgrade to put Jamie Langenbrunner back with those two and reunite ZZPops, but Lemaire compounded breaking up a scorching hot line by putting Zubrus with the fourth line. To quote an oldie but a goodie...'You cannot be serious!!!' At first I thought this was to reduce Zubrus's icetime in his third game back off of IR but it turns out Zubrus played 20+ minutes anyway and took a regular shift.
Lemaire's explanation was odd too, saying the fourth line needed help and that's why he moved Zubrus there. Well geez either bench the fourth frigging line with a lead in the third period or put some other veteran along with them...don't break up a line that was flat-out dominating last night! Those defensive decisions and defensive miscues on the ice led to a late third-period meltdown somewhat reminiscent of Game 7 last year. With just 5:01 left in the game, Bryce Salvador's turnover behind the net led to a quick unassisted Alexei Ponikarovsky goal, cutting the Devils' lead to one.
While the Leafs only got seven shots in the third period, clearly they were the only team interested in attacking, as ZZ Pops looked out of sync and the rest of the lines had no hope of creating any offense, even against a bad goaltender in Toskala. Finally came a moment several minutes in the making when Matt Stajan stunned the crowd, tying the game with just ninety-one seconds left off a rebound goal in front after the centerman slipped behind the ill-fated Oduya (who was clearly on Mars last night) to corral the puck.
Toronto almost applied the coup de grace in overtime, with only some good Brodeur saves keeping the Devils from their most embarassing defeat of the season. Even worse, it seemed like Lemaire was playing for the shootout as he sent out Pandolfo and Niedermayer on two different four-on-four shifts in the first two minutes of overtime! And they predictably got hemmed in their end for a minute on the latter shift before finally clearing the puck and giving way to Parise and Zajac who shifted the momentum, when Parise's pass found an open Zajac, who would be hauled down by Luke Schenn, creating just the fourth power play of the game (two for each team) with just 68 seconds remaining.
After a timeout by Lemaire to diagram a play and draw out the tension even more, the Devils' power play came out with four forwards (including the straight Z's, reunited at last) and passed the puck around for seconds - minutes it seemed to me - before finally Parise fed Zajac in front and the centerman fired a one-timer home with only 41 seconds left in the overtime for Zajac's fifteenth goal of the season. Everyone on the ice had a hand in the winning goal, with Brian Rolston also coming up with a secondary assist and Zubrus providing the screen in front of Toskala.
Then came the postgame, after which I had a few minutes to get out to the bus. I stopped in the little coffee shop along the way and in the midst of taking stuff out of my jacket pockets and putting them into my pants pockets and vice-versa I unwittingly left my camera on one of the side tables there. Unfortunately I didn't realize this until after I got on the bus, so after running to catch the bus in the first place I had to run back to the coffee place after the first stop to retrieve my camera. I still thought I would make the 9:44 bus back to Broad Street (with the next one being at 10:01) but I either missed it or the bus was late.
Whatever the case I wound up running after a bus I thought was mine but wasn't, so being flustered and out of luck at this point I decided to walk back the mile plus to Broad Street in freezing cold weather. At least I did make the 10:08 train back but man, it took till about the time I got home for me to warm up. I guess it was a fitting conclusion to a bizarre night but thank goodness I went through all this nonsense after a win!
BoNY Three Stars:
- Zach Parise (two goals, two assists, +2 and 9 SOG in 20:41)
- Danius Zubrus (goal, two assists, +2 in 20:37)
- Alexei Ponikarovsky (goal, assist)