Beating the Rangers is one thing. But following it up with a sound performance against Sidney Crosby and the defending champion Pens shows that the Devils just might be a factor this Spring. Facing a team they owned earlier in the season in what amounted to a significant game if they're to comeback and win the Atlantic, the Newark hosts stood up to Pittsburgh, defeating them a fifth straight time by a score of 3-1.
Martin Brodeur bested Marc-Andre Fleury with 34 saves and the New Jersey D we saw earlier this year returned. First half hero Andy Greene was the catalyst, scoring a goal and assist while playing splendid defense on the league's leading finisher Crosby, whose 45th of the season was the only one that beat Team Canada Olympic teammate Brodeur. For a team that had struggled for over a month, this was a change back to when things were right. Jacques Lemaire's defensive strategy again foiled the high flying Pens, who now have totaled only three goals in five defeats. The Devils' second consecutive win pulled them within two of first with two in hand. The old Patrick rivals meet one more time at The Rock next Wednesday.
For the Devils, everything was gravy with big acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk delivering his best game in red and black- finishing with a goal and two helpers along with a game high seven shots. Playing a more workman like game, the electrifying Russian helped set up Greene's decider with 17:54 left in the third period. At that critical juncture, the teams were deadlocked with the home club wasting a couple of power plays, including a Craig Adams major in which they got nothing done. However, Brodeur made two vital saves late in the stanza to keep that from burning them.
Early on, the teams traded goals 42 seconds apart. Patrik Elias got it started when he cashed in on a wide Greene shot that took a favorable carom, pushing the puck past an out of position Fleury for his 12th at 1:43. Kovalchuk netted a secondary helper. Once again ahead on a team they've owned, it looked like the Devils would roll. However, Crosby was having none of it, converting his league best 45th off a break to end a run of 11 straight New Jersey goals in the season series. Taking a quick feed from Chris Kunitz, Sid The Kid waited before going five-hole on Brodeur. A Martin Skoula minor soon followed but the Devils tightened up, keeping it tied.
While there was no scoring in the second, it certainly was highly entertaining with wide open action and plenty of rough stuff. With each trying to get their point across, the penalty fest started when Adams was called for a charging major, earning the rest of the night off. Judging from Matt Loughlin and Sherry Ross' commentary, it sounded like it was excessive. However, the Devils drove their fans nuts by barely testing Fleury. Ex-Devil Mike Rupp was then nabbed for an unnecessary slash on Brodeur following a puck he covered which led to a scrum. Handed a third opportunity to surge ahead, the Devs couldn't with Fleury seeing everything as the Pen PK did a solid job in front.
While on it, Dainius Zubrus and Kris Letang exchanged pleasantries following a Fleury save. Each earning matching roughs. The shenanigans continued when instigator Matt Cooke came at Rob Niedermayer, who of course was just releasing the puck. However, the younger Nieds saw him and threw an oldschool high crosscheck that drew the baby's ire. God forbid someone is prepared for his antics. Of course, Cooke challenged him while other players joined the fracas, including Ruslan Fedotenko and Colin White, who actually paired off. With David Clarkson wanting to step in, nothing materialized as cooler heads prevailed. Evgeni Malkin was also whistled for interference while Niedermayer got an extra two for the crosscheck, forcing Rod Pelley to serve it.
Faced with a little adversity, the Devils easily killed it off with outstanding work done by Greene, who was everywhere breaking up plays. By far his best game in months. The lift eventually led to a huge play which also could've been a turning point. A soft backhand pass by Clarkson sprung Kovalchuk for a clean breakaway to which the former Thrasher was denied by a quick Fleury pad. However, Letang got him from behind. Or at least from our vantage point, the side. Be that as it may, they rewarded Kovy a penalty shot. Previously, he was 1-for-1 in his career discounting the gimmick. With a chance to put his new team up, Kovalchuk's was stoned by Fleury. He tried to go low but nothing doing with even a smattering of boos from an impatient crowd.
It set the stages for a big third. Not shockingly, right off the bat Niedermayer obliged Cooke who got the better of him, earning the KO. It wasn't that bad. With the game hanging in the balance, Bryce Salvador found an on-rushing Kovalchuk, who backed up the D before sending a wrister on Fleury, which the Pens' netminder was unable to control kicking it right to Greene, who rifled it top shelf at 2:06- sending the crowd to its feet. It was his first goal since netting two back on Dec.9 versus Carolina, spanning 37 contests. Not only was it big but it marked two in a row in which Greene had at least two points. His offense had been non-existant. Perhaps the break helped because he's got five points in five games (1-4-5).
The game was far from over. With the Devs nursing a one-goal lead, more theatrics occurred when captain Jamie Langenbrunner got tangled up with Chris Kunitz near the Pens' bench. In fact, Kunitz pulled Langenbrunner in with him as players from both sides watched. On the sequence, somehow Pitt came out with a man-advantage as they gave Langs an extra two for high sticking. Again, the Devil PK was outstanding keeping the Pens on the perimeter. In particular, they pressured high forcing Letang to make the decisions while giving both Crosby and Malkin little space. It resulted in turnovers leading to routine clears. Brodeur also had a couple of stops, including a strong glove save on Jordan Staal. Even if the shot was heading wide, it was a smart play that allowed his team a breather following some diligent work.
The best Pens' chance came from Malkin, who all period had it going. Taking a pass in stride, he broke in and seemed to have Brodeur beat but couldn't tuck in his backhand with it instead hitting the side of the net. Probably the biggest play to that point. An even larger yet more controversial one came next. Off a solid forecheck by Zubrus and Travis Zajac, they worked the puck to Kovalchuk, who let one go from about 35 out. His harmless shot whizzed by Fleury, who vehemently protested immediately. Replays showed that an attacking Zajac waved his stick at it but wound up accidentally shoving Fleury's glove which looked in position. After much discussion, both Doc Emrick and Chico Resch agreed that maybe the Devils caught a break. Even if not intentional, it probably should've been wiped out due to incidental contact.
Instead, Kovalchuk's 35th (4th as a Devil) stood from Zubrus and Zajac, giving New Jersey a 3-1 lead with 10:01 remaining. A Mike Mottau high-sticking minor handed the Pens another power play. However, Brodeur and Co. again silenced the Pens, who despite a 15-5 edge in shots, couldn't beat their Kryptonite.
“Brodeur played as well as he can play,” a pleased Lemaire said. “He was on the top of his game and played very solid. He made some great saves in the third period.”
“There is no explanation for it,” the veteran coach added of his team's dominance of the Penguins. “You need a little luck. But when you do well against one team, it builds confidence and you think you can play at that level all the time.”
“He’s Martin Brodeur, so you can’t expect him not to play well,” Crosby added. “He gets up for games like this and gives a little something extra. Whether he considers it a challenge or not, I don’t know, but he just plays well.”
Whatever it is, one thing's certain. At least for now, the Devils have the Pens' number. Whether that changes next week or in the foreseeable future remains to be seen.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Martin Brodeur, NJD (34 saves incl.15/15 in 3rd)
2nd Star-Ilya Kovalchuk, NJD (4th as a Devil plus 2 assists, game best 7 SOG, +3 in 20:51)
1st Star-Andy Greene, NJD (GW goal-5th of season, assist, +3 in 23:34)