Last night's game in Phoenix just two nights after the Instant Classic at the Garden had letdown potential written all over it. Especially considering we've had a couple of bad losses to this team since the lockout when they weren't very good. Unfortunately now Phoenix is good, though they were in a slump going into last night's game (four straight home losses), that probably that meant they were due to break out of it. And our recent schedule hasn't been a picnic thanks to Lightgate.
Even given all that, the Devils outshot Phoenix 26-9 in the first two periods and were tied late in the third period until a bad three seconds from rookie Mark Fraser led to two different goals and proved to be the difference in a 4-3 loss, the Devils' second in three games - or four if you want to be technical.
Actually though, it did look like we were headed letdown central early on. Not so much that the team was playing bad but they did look a little flat, especially when Matthew Lombardi coasted to the front of the net to deflect Keith Yandle's shot past Martin Brodeur at 13:16 to give the Coyotes an early lead. That wasn't the most egregious mistake of the period though. With just seconds remaining, Colin White attempted to keep a bouncing puck in the zone but Peter Mueller chipped it by and then used rocket skates to get a breakaway on Brodeur, which he would take advantage of to get a crucial goal with just 30.4 seconds remaining.
On both goals, it was the defensive pairing of White and Mike Mottau that were victimized each time. Why, with all the other changes Jacques Lemaire makes on a daily basis he refuses to break this pair up for any length of time is beyond me. Although last night he did break them up after the first period, and like the game in Atlanta a few weeks back where White and Mottau were a -3 after the first, the defense improved exponentially thereafter.
Actually the whole team came out charged in the second period and pretty much dominated, outshooting the Coyotes 15-1. Somewhat surprisingly one of the leaders was Brian Rolston, who must like playing in the desert cause he came loaded for bear. Not only did he score his 14th goal of the season on a breakaway at 9:34 (off a nifty Rod Pelley pass and secondary Mottau assist) to finally get the Devils on the board against Ilya Bryzgalov, but he also drew a couple of penalties in the period. Now that the team had finally scored its first regulation goal in a game and a half, they kept coming and Zach Parise's feed of Travis Zajac in the slot led to Zajac one-timing the puck home off a slapshot at 14:06, giving him his 13th goal of the year including four in the last five games and tied the game.
Maybe the Devils should have converted even more against Bryzgalov, but the surprise Vezina candidate held the fort until the second intermission, and both teams settled down for a back-and-forth third that might have led to overtime but for a nice play from Daniel Winnik and Vernon Fiddler. Fiddler had already showed his speed earlier in the period streaking past Johnny Oduya (whose diving play to get the puck off Fiddler's stick saved total embarassment).
This time he showed his passing skills, throwing one through the crease that Fraser appeared to intercept but Winnik adroitly hit Fraser's stick and the puck went in at 11:52 of the third. Worse still, Fraser lost control of his stick on the play and took a double-minor penalty when he drew blood from Winnik. It took just seventy-six seconds for the Yotes to cash in when Zbynek Michalek scored on a slapshot, giving Phoenix a 4-2 lead.
Even on this night against another very good defensive team, the Devils weren't done yet and nearly came back twice from two goals down. Rolston scored his second of the game on a slapshot at 15:16 after assists from Mottau and Jamie Langenbrunner to cut the deficit to 4-3. From there however, the Yotes shut the door and preserved their first regulation win since December 28. For the second time inside a week, the Devils managed to lose when outshooting their opponent considerably and in the other two games they managed two goals (one in OT) and got shut out for the first time this season. Clearly the offense has hit a bit of a lull in the dog days of January.
Of course it is an indicator that things are still going well when two losses in a week and 6-4 during your last ten feels like a slump, but lately the Devils haven't been as good as their record. That was bound to happen though, in these days of parity and the overtime point it's hard to see a team dominating like the '76 Canadiens or the Wings team that won 62 games during the mid 90's. Things don't get any easier though, as the team travels to Colorado for an afternoon game on Saturday against another surprising team out West before coming home for the President's Day afternoon special against the Islanders on Long Island.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Brian Rolston (two goals, +1 and three drawn penalties)
- Ilya Bryzgalov (31/34 saves)
- Daniel Winnik (goal)