Could there have been more emotion in the Prudential Center last night for any other regular season game? Barring a particular home game one year ago yesterday it's doubtful, at least not when it comes to a pro-Devils crowd. For starters, you had a home game on St. Patrick's Day which guarantees drunken wackos will show up. Next, you had the Devils playing this game in their so-called Christmas tree throwback jerseys (above), which they used for their first decade in New Jersey. Finally, for the straight purist you had a first-place showdown with the defending Stanley Cup Champs, who the Devils would attempt to sweep in the season series for the first time in franchise history.
Mission accomplished - and in grand fashion to booth, as the Devils won 5-2, ensuring a six-game sweep of the Penguins, marking the first time in NHL history a defending champion's ever been swept in a season series. Last night's win also put the Devils back in first place by percentage points, a division title that looms more and more important with each home victory New Jersey puts up this season (now 24-9-1 at the Rock, after a 1-4 start in October).
Adding to the emotion even more was a surprise return last night - Paul Martin came back to the Devils lineup for the first time in 59 games since originally suffering a broken forearm in Pittsburgh ironically enough. Given how amped up the crowd was at the start, perhaps a nervous start from the team was inevitable, particularly from Martin himself who looked like he was skating in mud when he got beat to a loose puck early in the first and played like a guy who hadn't dressed in nearly five months, other than one notable play later (more on that in a moment).
At 4:01 of the first, Chris Kunitz beat Martin Brodeur off a rebound to give the Penguins quite possibly their first lead against the Devils all season, but if the crowd was nervous they didn't show it. Sections 208 and 209 were amped up on Red Bull last night (and quite possibly about five hundred other substances), giving the Penguins' Sidney Crosby the royal treatment with quite a few 'Crosby Sucks!' chants, and mock cries. Plus one strong-throated individual started a player names chant. I think it went something like 'Jamie, Jamie, Jaaaaime...LANGENBRUNNER!', and the guy went through about ten players on the roster before the end of the first period. In fact, a couple of points his voice broke and I wasn't sure if he was doing it for effect or if it actually was breaking off.
Backed by the crowd, the Devils eventually settled into their game and the Penguins were the ones who looked anxious, as they conceded five breakaways in twelve shots by the middle of the second period, including one where Patrik Elias sprang Danius Zubrus, who made a Viktor Kozlov shootout-like move to beat Marc-Andre Fleury at 10:51 for Zubbie's seventh of the season. If Zubrus's skill on the breakaway was surprising what happened next would be even more shocking, as Martin came barreling down the wing and unleashed a wrister through a screen in front that beat Fleury at 18:18 for the defenseman's first goal of the season. After all of the trials and tribulations Martin's gone through since late October, scoring that kind of goal was at least some payback.
Now leading 2-1, the Devils turned it up another notch early in the second. Being shorthanded for the first time in the game turned out to be a blessing in disguise early in the second period, when Elias caused a turnover at the blueline then streaked in on Fleury for his own breakaway goal at 3:09, St. Patty's thirteenth of the year. Just imagine if Elias played every night on St. Patty's Day, he'd probably win the Hart Trophy. My prediction to the guy next to me was that one more goal this period and Fleury would be gone. This time I turned out to be correct after Zach Parise scored his 33rd goal off a rebound in front at 10:17, after assists from Travis Zajac and new dad Martin Skoula. Fleury was relieved in favor of Brent Johnson and wasn't happy about it, after trying to break his stick on the boards he did so after coming off the ice.
Who would have thunk it, the Devils becoming a team that drives other goalies crazy? While we nearly made it 5-1 on a handful of chances right after Fleury was given the hook, eventually the game (and the crowd) slowed down, as if exhaling from the adrenaline rush of the first half of the game. Perhaps the Devils tried to sit on the lead a little too much, and were outshot 10-3 in the third, including Ruslan Fedotenko's goal at 5:23 that pulled the Penguins to within 4-2. Even without Evgeni Malkin - a surprise scratch due to a foot issue - I still worried about the possibility of a meltdown.
A fear that grew more acute with Rod Pelley's mind-boggling boarding penalty on Alex Goligoski with just over six minutes to go. Even after Kris Letang jumped him and canceled out two minutes of the five minute penalty, I was still seething. Although Pelley actually played a good game and Jacques Lemaire defended his player in the postgame I still thought it was a stupid, unneccesary thing to do. Granted, I didn't see a replay but from my angle it looked worse than anything Alex Ovechkin did this weekend. After using offensive players on the four-on-four the Devils turned to their defensive specialists to kill off the three-minute power play, which amazingly they did. That penalty kill included a final clear of the zone by Pelley himself, streaking out of the box to make a hustle play (and somewhat to my surprise, since I thought that he probably should have been ejected).
An empty-netter by Rob Niedermayer at 18:47 (assisted by Parise) gave the centerman his tenth goal and cinched a 5-2 win that started the chants of 'You Can't Beat Us!', among others. Just over a week ago things looked lousy for the Devils after their Alberta trip, but with four straight home wins against tough competition things are slowly looking up. Of course, one thing remains before I'm convinced the Devils are back - to start winning on the road again. We're something like 2-11-1 in our last fourteen road games including a dissapointing loss to the Isles Saturday.
Tonight's game in Toronto feels like one of those 'oh, we have to play tonight?!' type games but hey, every team has those and the Leafs are not one of the 894 teams in the East that can still make the playoffs so hopefully we can play better against this team than we did in that three-game block during late January and early Feburary. Still, whatever happens at least the team has a healthy roster (for the moment) and time to gel before the playoffs. And now that we won in the throwbacks, superstitious Lou Lamoriello won't have to put them back in the closet - since if we had lost last night after five straight wins over the Penguins, we'd never have seen the green jerseys again.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Patrik Elias (goal, assist, +3)
- Paul Martin (goal, +1 with 18:05 TOI)
- Martin Brodeur (24/26 saves)