Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Escape

For nearly fifty-seven minutes last night, the Devils' response to the Ilya Kovalchuk trade was one big dud. In all the hoopla over the Devils' biggest acquisition in a long time, it was easy to forget this team was 3-6-1 in its last ten games coming in, having been shut out in four of its last twelve games and just 2 for its last 37 on the power play during the last fourteen. Even adding Kovalchuk and having him assist on Danius Zubrus's first-period goal wasn't enough to push the Devils through their malaise, as they gave up three goals in the second period and generally looked bad in all phases despite outshooting the Leafs for the majority of the night. Many in the crowd (including me) booed at the end of the second, and things weren't looking much better in the third when the Leafs trapped us to oblivion.

Then, IT happened.

It being one of the most insane finishes you could possibly script. Heck, this script was too ridiculous even for Hollywood. First, Dean McAmmond of all people roofed a backhander with 3:04 left to put a jolt of adrenaline into the team. Then with a two-man advantage thanks to a power play and an empty net, Travis Zajac rifled home a slapshot with just 44 seconds left, tying the game and sending the diehards who stayed into a frenzy. And for the topper of all toppers, with the game headed surely to overtime - the one and only Jay Pandolfo (?!) scored on a rebound of a Mike Mottau shot at 19:41 to complete an unfathomable, impossible trifecta as the Devils scored a stunning 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs to close out their three game 'series' with a bang.

Nothing I'd seen in the first fifty-seven minutes suggested you could even dream about such a finish. Then again, before the game I thought the Devils would curb-stomp the Leafs much the way they did to us Tuesday on an adrenaline high after their recent big acquisitions - Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastian Giguere. The latter - as usual - chickened out of playing in New Jersey (where he was psyched out during the '03 Finals), or at least it appeared that way. There's no other rational explanation for Ron Wilson to bench Giggy off a shutout against us just three days ago. Also not playing was Patrik Elias, who isn't quite ready to come off IR just yet conditioning-wise though he should be ready soon enough.

Of course, GM Lou Lamoriello made sure Kovalchuk played, personally meeting the star winger and fellow acquisition Anssi Salmela in Washington to escort them back to Jersey. Although last night's crowd fell short of a sellout, the lower bowl was packed during warmups of everyone wanting to get their first look at the NHL's leading goalscorer since 2001 in a Devils jersey. I tried to take pictures myself, and managed to at least get a decent one of Kovy and Zach Parise (above), with Andrew Peters and the eventual first star - Pando - in the background.

Despite the typically late arriving crowd, it was an electric atmosphere. While he wasn't introduced with the starting lineup, Kovalchuk was wildly cheered during his first shift on the ice and steadily throughout after that. Early on, the Devils justified the crowd's optimism when Kovalchuk got his first point as a Devil at 13:20, centering a pass in front that deflected off a skate and towards Zubrus, whose Bobby Orr-esque (re: flying through the air) goal was so pretty I inially thought Parise had scored it. 8 and 9 can look pretty similar sometimes after all - just ask Steve Cangelosi haha. However, Zubrus has been showing lately that if you put him with elite talent it brings out the best in him, just as it did when he was having 60-point seasons in Washington riding shotgun with Alex Ovechkin. Jamie Langenbrunner also assisted on Zubrus's fourth goal of the season.

As is his wont though, Jacques Lemaire didn't leave the Zubrus-Kovy-Langenbrunner line together too long. In fact, after about midway through the first I'm not sure any line got more than two shifts consecutively, other than the Pandolfo-Rob Niedermayer tandem which remained constant. Our offense ground to a halt from that point for the most part, but the Devils still held that 1-0 lead during the first intermission. I figured if Kovalchuk scored at any point the roof would blow off the Rock.

Instead of the roof blowing off, it caved in during the second period...helped in no small part by inconsistent reffereeing. After letting everything (sans an obvious tripping on Francois Beauchemin) go during the first period, they called four minor penalties in under six minutes during the second period, three on the Devils. Toronto turned two of those power plays into goals, first when Tomas Kaberle fired an off-balance floater from the point that got past Martin Brodeur at 3:39, then Lee Stempniak squeezed one through Brodeur's pads at 10:23. Even though both were PP goals I still felt they could have been stopped, the second in particular which was just an unscreened soft wrister from near the faceoff circle. Finally, at 16:09 Rickard Wallin scored after a sloppy turnover from Langenbrunner led to a wide-open wrister from point-blank range.

Combined with general sloppiness, the teams' recent play and the dissapointment over the response to the Kovalchuk trade they received scattered boos during the second intermission. I'm not one to boo for the sake of it or at the first little sign of trouble, but I thought they deserved it by then. In retrospect, maybe I was too harsh - not because of the comeback, but because I forgot about the team's flu bug. Langenbrunner, in particular really annoyed me last night. In addition to his turnover on the goal, he had a few others in the game as well as failing to get his stick on the ice when Kovalchuk found him wide open for what could have been an automatic goal. It wasn't till I got home that I remembered the captain had sat out the third period of Tuesday's game due to flu symptoms though. And in the end he wound up with over twenty minutes played, two assists and a +2. Not bad for an off night.

Between the flu (which also affected Andy Greene), replacing Oduya in the lineup with the 'other' new acquisition Anssi Salmela and Paul Martin still being on IR, the defense was a mish-mash last night. Mike Mottau led the team in icetime with 22:02, which would make you cringe on first glance until you realize Greene's minutes were down because of illness, and you really can't overplay Bryce Salvador or Colin White cause they would break down. Lemaire handled things the only way he could - especially with another game tonight as well - even giving Salmela twenty minutes and Mark Fraser fifteen plus. I actually didn't think the defense was a big issue last night, as they only gave up twenty shots overall though the PK coverage was lacking, as the Leafs went 2-4 on the power play.

Offensively, however the team was flat as a pancake. Sure, they tried too hard to feed Kovalchuk at times and he tried too hard to fit in opting to pass instead of shoot. Somewhat amusingly, Kovalchuk wound up with fewer shots on net than Salmela - Salmela had two and Kovy one, though Kovy had one rifle on the point during a power play expertly blocked by Fredrik Sjostrom. Lemaire using a bingo ball cage to help determine his lines didn't help either, but I'm not going to get on the coach for obsessive line-juggling till like mid-March. After all, it worked early in the year and you need to use the regular season to get everyone used to playing with each other in my mind. Still, it would be nice to find consistent combinations once everyone gets healthy (which hasn't happened yet).

With everything going against us, people started to file out with several minutes left. Thankfully one of them was this obese guy who sat in front of me taking up three seats while snoring - yes snoring! - for the majority of the night. Are you kidding me?! Who in their right mind goes to a hockey game just to sleep through most of it? I realize it wasn't all that exciting for 56+ minutes but come on now. Even one of the fans who has a horn and came down to sit by me couldn't keep this guy awake. After that guy left, a season-ticket holder who sits at the end of my row also had enough and was starting to put his jacket on and leave but right as he stood up, McAmmond scored. Talk about good timing...he sat down after that and enjoyed the rest of the game, in his jacket and all!

Even when McAmmond scored his third of the season after assists from Mottau and Vladimir Zharkov (who was one of the few to have a good game last night, though he also missed a wide-open net for what would have been his first-ever NHL goal), I couldn't get all that excited. I stood but gave more of a sarcastic clap than anything else and figured the late, futile rally was coming. It wasn't until Zubrus drew a penalty on Alexander Ponikarovsky at 17:38 that I believed a comeback could be possible. While the power play again looked ineffective at first, the season ticket holder who sits next to me was wondering when Lemaire would pull Brodeur for an extra attacker. That wouldn't happen until fifty seconds remained, and I agree with that strategy on the power play, you want to delay giving the Leafs a free shot at an empty net as long as possible with no icing on the penalty kill.

Finally, with Brodeur pulled the unlikeliest offensive force of the comeback - McAmmond - found a wide-open Zajac in position for him to rifle a suddenly formidable slapshot past Jonas Gustavsson, and that finally got me excited and sent the rest of the crowd into a frenzy. With the offensive players having played the majority of the prior two and a half minutes in the game, Pandolfo and Nieds came on the ice, seemingly to assure overtime. However they weren't just playing not to lose now - they were playing to win. Pando chipped the puck in the zone and Mottau eventually fired a slapshot that rebounded to Pando in front, and he put it home with just nineteen seconds remaining. While everyone else was going berserk, I was just standing there, jaw dropped. I absolutely couldn't believe this. As I texted two friends after the game, I felt like I died and was in bizarro world.

To be honest though, it was about freaking time we did that to another team. Usually over the last year plus we've been on the floor after having the rug pulled out from under us - starting with Game 7 and continuing with losing two-goal leads late in both our prior home games. And while I was still in stunned mode after the final horn, it felt like the good ol' days at the CAA with people chanting 'Let's Go Devils!' on the way out of the stadium and even into the walkway going towards Newark Penn, with many fellow Devil fans randomly telling me 'nice game, eh?'
Well, it was a spectacular three minutes that made the first fifty-seven more than worth it anyway!
BoNY Three Stars:
  1. Dean McAmmond (goal, assist, +1)
  2. Ilya Kovalchuk (two assists, 21:43 TOI)
  3. Jay Pandolfo (game-winning goal, +1, 5 SOG)

1 comment:

Derek Felix said...

great story. really captured the crazy finish from a fans' perspective. The Leafs should be ashamed. I'd have made them skate laps. lol

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