Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Week in review: Devil fits and spurts

So, as the saying goes...I'm baaaack (from a week-long hiatus)! Turned out I didn't miss much in New Jersey this weekend since the monsoon-like conditions led to power failures all over the state. No doubt the St. Patty's parade in Morristown this year on Saturday was a dud, since the planned gettogether some of my friends always have that day didn't happen anyway - with or without me. I was busy Wednesday and out of the state the prior few days but actually didn't miss all that much Devils hockey.

Oh, I missed Wednesday's beatdown of Henrik Lundqvist, at least live. Making it worse was the fact it turned out I didn't have to be where I was that night so I could have gone to the game after all. Thank goodness the power failures didn't start at that point so my tape actually worked, unlike this weekend where nothing I wanted to tape did so I watched it all Thursday. Ironically I could have seen the first half of the game if I'd wanted to but after the Devils' brilliant Alberta trip I was too nervous to watch and as it turned out that was the worse half anyway.

Granted, Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond beat down goon extrordinare Jody Shelley during the first period, and the Devils scored three times but also gave up the lead three times, the last of which came after a giveaway by Mark Fraser that led to him being benched the rest of the game and scratched the next two games. While Fraser's play has gotten progressively worse this season I do think part of it's the fact that Jacques Lemaire give him - and the other kids - no rope at all. Just look how badly Nicklas Bergfors was in the doghouse before he left and how he started scoring again the minute he got out of here. It's not as if other people haven't been screwing up on this defense either, but I digress.

While the second and third goals were embarassingly scored by Erik Christensen and Brandon Prust (the former on a nifty deke in front one-on-one with Martin Brodeur after yet another defensive breakdown), Brodeur actually did fairly well that game for someone who allowed three goals. Then again you could say the same of Lundqvist giving up five, since most of them were deflections seemingly off his own defensemen. Almost all of what went on wasn't his fault, including John Tortorella flashing his Mike Keenan complex and pulling Lundqvist at 5-3, with plenty of time to get back into the game. In fairness, coach unhappy probably didn't see Dan Girardi's stick deflect the last puck in, which looked like it was going to be an epic fail three on one by the Devils before Brian Rolston's attempted pass luckily bounced in for his first goal as a Devil seemingly since 2000.

Most encouraging that night were all the different goalscorers, including a couple of d-men. Six goals and not one of them scored by Ilya Kovalchuk. Friday would be a different story though, as I attended a strange game between the Devils and Penguins. In the first period we played Atlanta Thrashers-like hockey and were fortunate to only be tied, although Sidney Crosby's five-hole goal on Marty less than a minute after Patrik Elias gave us an early lead was yet another example of the Devils not maintaining focus after scoring.

If anyone watched the second period, they wouldn't believe how bizarre it got. I barely believe it, and I was there. To wit, the Devils got nine and a half minutes of power play time - two minors plus a five-minute major after a cheap shot by Craig Adams on Martin Skoula with about a half minute tacked onto that because the Penguins didn't have a guy in the box, not to mention an attempted (if you want to call it that) penalty shot by Kovalchuk...and the game was still tied at 1-1 after two!

Not scoring on the five-minute major was the most hair-pulling of all, although it doesn't help when you have an extended power play and shoot your load early on with the dreaded five forward formation. Using up all our forwards led to a minute and a half of watching Rod Pelley, Dean McAmmond and Rob Niedermayer in a disasterous shift with the man advantage. Not that our big scorers did any better though, but when you have three supposed scoring lines it would be nice not to have to use the fourth one on an extended power play.

Kovalchuk's embarassing attempt on the penalty shot was almost as bad, after he got hauled down on a breakaway he just stepped to the ice, made one move and threw a weak wrister at Marc-Andre Fleury. Honestly Colin White did better against Mike Richter in that epic fail penalty shot several years ago, but then again Kovy's not good on breakaways - he's been 0-4 since the Olympic break one-on-one with the goalie. Things got so bad I was actively laughing in the hall during the second intermission. What else could you do at that point?

Fortunately the Devils showed their early-season resilience and scored twice in the third, including a contreversial one by Kovalchuk where Travis Zajac made contact with Fleury's glove during the shot. I didn't realize what all the fuss was about upstairs until I saw the highlight afterward...oh well, guess those are the breaks but really the Pens didn't deserve any luck Friday. They're a bit of a cheap outfit, from Matt Cooke and his cheap shots to Adams and his late hit on Skoula (worse than the Alex Ovechkin shove really) to Mike Rupp turning into a complete douche since he switched uniforms, swatting at Marty with his stick and attempting to take out another Devil the way he did Jay Pandolfo a few months back.

Still, even with the big win that got us back within two points of the division lead and gave us five straight over the Penguins I wasn't convinced we were back. I needed to see more than one lousy two-game winning streak in two months, even if those two games were the biggest kind possible in the regular season. Playing in Long Island Saturday had slight letdown written on it but I actually thought the team would come out well and they did...for fifteen minutes, before reverting back to the chickens with their heads cut off play of the last two months. The less said about that game, the better except that defensive breakdowns again proved fatal, particularly on a shorthanded goal against after Kovalchuk scored early in the third to pull us to within 3-2.

Somewhat surprisingly, Yann Danis started that night - apparently much to the consternation of Devils Nation who wanted to see us keep our momentum going. Well if you actually watched the game and know anything about hockey, you couldn't fault Danis for the loss Saturday. Our power play stinks, our defense is brainless but that's Danis's fault? Besides, is Brodeur supposed to play all seven games in the next eleven nights? Why are we the only team in the league not allowed to play a backup...I mean, the Penguins have a backup that's won like ten games just to start with.

That game I watched on a friend's computer and Monday I listened to the first two periods in a car ride home. While the Bruins were the more desperate team (predictably) in the first ten minutes, the Devils feasted on a struggling Tim Thomas and pounded home three goals in quick succession, chasing Thomas after the first. Other than the goal-burst and good fight wins by Pelley and Leblond, there really wasn't much to see in the last two periods other than the Devils again going to the umbrella prevent and nearly paying for it late when the Bruins scored with just under a minute left to make it 3-2 and narrowly missed tying it at the buzzer.

So now we go into this Wednesday's big showdown with the Penguins two points out with a game in hand, which speaks to how important our 5-0 record against them has been. If we'd gone .500 against them we'd be twelve points back. With the game on Wednesday being throwback jersey night as well, it's another guaranteed sellout which would be the Devils' third in four games since coming back from the break to go along with a nearly 16,000 crowd last night. At least the fans will be ready, hopefully the team will as well.

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