If you have sunny-side view of things as a Devils fan, after last night you'll point out that we're back in first place, that the Devils were the better team last night and could easily have put five or six past Henrik Lundqvist again and that even if a mere formality, the Devils officially clinched a playoff berth with the Thrashers' OT loss in Toronto.
Reality paints a harsher picture, though.
See, none of that matters when you blow nine hundred scoring chances, three different leads (again!) with the final blown lead coming inside the final twenty seconds of regulation and your coach is a cross between a mad scientist and just plain mad. Last night it was definitely the latter with a series of bizarre decisions that didn't help at all and unless these issues get sorted out it's not going to matter whether the Devils win the division or the Rangers miss the playoffs, since we'll be joining them golfing in late April.
Admittedly I had a bad feeling about this game from the start. I don't think it was Jacques Lemaire's decision to bench both Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond and Rod Pelley in favor of Andrew Peters and Jay Pandolfo but it didn't help. You bench two kids playing well for two players that aren't in a rivalry game at home? Why are we getting cute with the lineup after putting in six goals? It's just like how Lemaire couldn't resist changing around the lines after back-to-back multi-goal performances in wins over the Penguins and Rangers earlier this month, it's just mind-boggling.
I think the real source of my pre-game consternation was the fact I knew Lundqvist wasn't having two bad games in a row against the Devils, not to mention my 2-9 soon to be 2-10 record going to Devil-Ranger games since the move to Prudential Center (one of the wins being that meaningless last regular season game a couple years ago, the other the crazy 8-5 game with Scott Clemmensen in net). A hideously bad power play in the first few minutes only added to my impending feeling of doom, it was a wake-up call back to reality after our three power play goals Tuesday night as we couldn't even gain the zone against an excellent PK.
Fortunately the Devils did come out well in the first period, holding the Rangers to just four shots on net and taking the lead when a Brian Rolston slapper rebounded right to Ilya Kovalchuk in front, and he put home the rebound for his 38th of the year at 5:21. Kovalchuk was flying in the first period and after his four-point night on Tuesday I thought okay, this is the game we finally see the real Kovalchuk. Despite six shots on net and about twenty-three minutes of icetime however, it never really materialized.
Too bad, because the frustration started shortly after Kovy scored, with Jamie Langenbrunner missing two glorious chances in the first, a number that would baloon to about six or seven before the night was over, Patrik Elias putting a shorthanded breakaway attempt right into Lundqvist's pads early in the second and Zach Parise having a goal waved off for directing the puck into the net with his arm later in that period.
When you monopolize scoring chances and don't come through, eventually the roof's going to fall in and the refs were no help after the first period either, ignoring about seven or eight obvious Ranger penalties and not giving us the benefit of the doubt on anything including a contreversial icing near the end of the game that proved decisive. More on that later though, on the Rangers' first power play they showed us how it was done with the man advantage when Brandon Dubinsky scored at 7:32 to tie the game - the first time.
After a leaky second period where they allowed fourteen shots on net and took almost back-to-back penaties maybe we were fortunate to still be tied, but we were getting our chances and finally Elias would rifle in a one-timer off a nice David Clarkson pass at 3:53 to break the tie early in the third. Danius Zubrus also got an assist on the goal, which is interesting because I barely remember him being on the ice last night at all and sure enough his TOI was a mere 10:32 last night.
Granted, when Lemaire did allow him to play he had a few nice shifts but for some reason known only to him, Lemaire's put Zubrus in the doghouse the last several games after he'd started playing by far his best hockey as a Devil. It's not just a matter of playing coach's pet Rolston over him which is bad enough, Zubrus didn't even get time on a rare Devils power play where one of our fourth-liners (can't remember who but think it was Dean McAmmond) was playing RW over him and I was beside myself, where the **** is Zubrus?!
That wouldn't be my last ounce of frustration with Lemaire on the night but for now my main concern was the leaky defense, which allowed the Rangers' fourth line to tie the game at 9:40 when Artem Ansimov scored a Marian Gaborik-like goal and both Ranger enforcers Brandon Prust and Jody Shelley (who did lose to Peters in the obligatory first-period fight) got assists. Perhaps that explains Shelley's bizarre presence on the ice in the final couple minutes after the Rangers fell behind again when Langenbrunner finally - finally! - put a slapshot past Lundqvist for his seventeenth goal of the year at 12:37 off assists from Elias and Andy Greene.
While I can't say I ever thought the game was over I was comfortable with the way the Devils played from in front, trying (not recklessly but still trying) to get the fourth goal instead of sitting back and it worked - until the final minute when the Parise-Elias-Langenbrunner line went to crap on a shift and eventually took an icing with less than thirty seconds left that later some, including Ken Daneyko on the postgame, thought shouldn't have been called.
Be that as it may, not managing the final minutes to have at least one of your rare halfway decent faceoff men on the ice (either Travis Zajac or Rob Niedermayer) to go against Chris Drury was just not thinking ahead. Having Elias and Langenbrunner as your main faceoff options is just asking for trouble and sure enough Drury wins the faceoff and eventually scored the back-breaking goal with seventeen seconds left off a rebound in front. Another consequence of the icing was it kept our slow and slower defensive pair of Colin White and Mike Mottau on the ice as well, so once again as the Devils blow a late lead - see Game 7 last year - Paul Martin's somehow left on the bench.
After that goal and seeing the Bruins' loss to a lousy Tampa Bay team on the scoreboard the result seemed clear, it was just a matter of how the Rangers would win it. Enter the skills competition when Erik Christensen (a scrub before this season who's turned into an All-Star against the Devils) scored a nifty goal off both posts and the crossbar that was at first waved off but I knew we weren't lucky enough to have that one miss going in. That would be all the Rangers needed as Lundqvist stopped Parise, Elias and Zajac in succession and we got our deserved defeat.
Of course in the postgame all people wanted to know was why Kovalchuk didn't take the shot. Have any of these second-guessers actually watched the Devils since the Olympics? Really? Kovalchuk's god-awful in the skills competition and was an epic fail on a penalty shot against the Penguins just two weeks ago. Why doesn't John Tortorella get questioned on not having Gaborik as one of his three shooters, couldn't be because they won anyway could it? I guess one coach wasn't right to bench his star in the skills competition but the other was.
Besides there are more than enough things to criticize Lemaire for without defaulting to that silly one. Every player we put out has had some success in the shootout, they didn't last night including Parise having about the easiest shot I've ever seen another goaltender have to make a save on from his stick. Bottom line, we blew three leads for the second straight game against the Rangers and could have easily put the game away before finally blowing it at the end of regulation, overtime point or not we deserved that humiliation in front of a crowd that was actually as pro-Devils as I've ever seen at the Rock for any Devil-Ranger game. Pity.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Henrik Lundqvist (35/38 saves)
- Patrik Elias (goal, assist, +1 and 6 SOG in 24:28)
- Chris Drury (goal, +1 in 23:27)