Saturday, March 27, 2010

Devils clinch playoff berth after nailbiter at the Bell Centre

Okay so I was slightly premature the other night and the Devils' OT loss against the Rangers wasn't quite enough for them to clinch a playoff berth, but they turned the trick tonight with a hard-fought 4-2 win in Montreal and will be playing postseason games for the thirteenth straight year, a streak second only to Detroit. When MSG+ showed the graphic before the game of the six longest postseason streaks I couldn't help but notice the bottom three teams on the list were all in danger of missing the playoffs this year (Anaheim, Calgary and the Rangers) and only the Devils and Wings had streaks longer than six seasons. That's a rare form of consistency that should be appreciated.

Of more immediate concern for the Devils was their 2-12-1 record in their last fifteen road games coming into tonight's tilt in Montreal against a red-hot Canadiens team, not to mention the Penguins' afternoon victory that put them back in first place by two points though the value of winning the division is still questionable at this point given the ambiguity of who we'd be facing. Plus with the Sabres streaking as well, at this point you could only really be talking about the difference between the #3 seed and the #4 seed, which isn't nearly the big deal that the #2-4 difference is, since being the #2 seed guarantees home-ice for at least two rounds of the playoffs (should the team get that far) while the #3 doesn't neccesarily do that.

Aside from all that, the team's first concern should have been just playing better than they did the other night against the Rangers. I'm sorry, I can't agree with Chico Resch that the loss was a positive the other night. We're not into moral victories around here, certainly not against a rival team that's below you in the standings. Still, they did some good things offensively to be sure and built off that tonight as well with Jacques Lemaire's latest shuffling of the top two lines resulting in Patrik Elias going in between Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner with Travis Zajac going between Ilya Kovalchuk and Brian Rolston. For a rare time this year, Lemaire's left some lines intact for two straight games although there were a couple of lineup changes with Rod Pelley playing over Jay Pandolfo and Vladimir Zharkov (remember him?) in favor of Andrew Peters.

With Montreal coming out juiced up at home, they swarmed Martin Brodeur early and often during the first period, putting the first six shots on net but as usual the HOF goalie to be stepped it up another notch in his hometown and would keep the Devils afloat until their suddenly effective power play broke the tie at 8:11 with Zajac and Parise starting a play that resulted in a nice pass from Parise to Elias in front and Elias made a move to control the puck then roofed it over Jaroslav Halak from the side of the net for his 15th of the season. Having Elias heat up is certainly a good sign heading towards the playoffs, and his goal changed momentum though at times both teams played pond hockey in the first period as the Devils put up fourteen shots to the Canadiens' thirteen.

Both teams also showed their intensity in that opening period with David Clarkson challenging giant Hal Gill to a fight (which resulted in a cautious draw), and then Langenbrunner standing up to Montreal captain Andrei Markov, with both getting matching roughing minors. For Clarkson though, it was about the only real action he'd see on the night as he played 8:47 which was only second lowest on the team to Pelley's 7:56. Zubrus also barely clocked in at ten minutes once again, but I suppose I can't complain too much given the alternative - playing the third line over the top two lines, which at least Lemaire isn't doing this year unlike his predecessor last season.

Early in the second, the Devils' power play scored once again, as a Kovalchuk shot rebounded to Langenbrunner who turned around and fired blind, finding a miniscule opening between Halak's pads for the captain's 18th goal at 1:59. Also getting an assist on the goal was Andy Greene, as the Devils took a 2-0 lead. As usual however, a two-goal lead is the most dangerous one for New Jersey and finally Montreal made a dent in the Brodeur wall at 5:15 when ex-teammate Scott Gomez found Andrei Kostitsyn in front for a one-timer in the slot, cutting the Devils' lead to 2-1. Fortunately the defense would hold up tonight for the most part, and on one of his rare shifts, Zubrus made an impact when he put his big frame in front and a Paul Martin shot bounced off him and past Halak for Zubrus's 8th goal of the yeat at 15:19, with Zharkov even getting an assist as well.

During the pregame the other night, Lemaire touted Zharkov as a hard worker who had skill and deserved another chance. While all that's true, it's still tough to keep running someone out there who doesn't yet have a goal in his first 35 NHL games but that said, he was pretty decent in his 9:13 for someone who hadn't played in three weeks and even got a shift in the final couple of minutes. Of course that cut into Clarkson and Zubrus's playing time but hey, to be fair you might as well find out if the kid can play since odds are Peters and fellow enforcer Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond won't see much icetime in the playoffs.

Now down 3-1, the Canadiens seemingly had us right where they wanted us as it took them just ninety seconds to cut the lead to one yet again, when a Kostitsyn pass found the skate of Tomas Plekanec in front and bounced in off Brodeur, setting up a nervous third period where the Devils got only four shots on net and had to withstand a couple very good Montreal chances in the final minutes. Still, I don't think we went into a shell entirely, sometimes you just have to say the other team is good and is going to get their opportunities. Of course Brodeur stood tall again, and when it came down to the final minutes it seemed like it was deja vu as the Elias line was out there with Colin White and Mike Mottau as the defensive pairing.

Fortunately there was no icing this time, and Martin did get on the ice for the final shift as well as Zajac but the empty-net goal that sealed it with ten seconds left came after Kovalchuk made a nice play to get the puck and in position for a goal. Then much to everyone's surprise he drop-passed one off to Rolston at the last possible moment to give him a shot at the empty net, which he took advantage of firing one just between two Montreal defenders for his nineteenth goal of the year. Everyone, including me, Chico and Doc Emrick was wondering why Kovalchuk would get the puck for Rolston after a seemingly random goal but it turned out that Kovalchuk knew it was Rolston's 700th NHL point. Not the sexy milestone that Brodeur's 552 is to be sure, but is just another little example of how Kovalchuk is proving he can fit in and doesn't have the ego you would associate with some other star players.

Ironically tomorrow night's game against a suddenly fading Flyers team is of keen interest across the river, as the Rangers (despite a tough OT loss tonight) have an opportunity to catch Philly with a home-and-home series looming in the final weekend. Of course it also interests all of Pennsylvania, as the Penguins will be looking for an odd bit of help from their in-state rival to stay tied in points with the Devils, although they would still technically be behind since New Jersey has more wins.

BoNY Three Stars:

  1. Martin Brodeur (25/27 saves)
  2. Andrei Kostitsyn (goal, assist, +1 in 20:14)
  3. Ilya Kovalchuk (two assists, +1 in 20:52)

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