Last night everything was right there for the Devils - again. Buffalo's loss to the Bruins ensured that a Devil win last night and Saturday at home against the Islanders would wrap up the division and the second seed, also ensuring that Sunday's finale against the Sabres would be meaningless. All they had to do was win against a beat-up Panthers team, out of the playoffs for the tenth straight year and a team with the worst home record in the league.
Doesn't it just figure that this team can't make anything easy on itself though? After two straight shutouts the Devils looked like they were coming out of their 2010-long malaise at last, but ex-mate Scott Clemmensen put them right back in one by making 42 saves in a 3-2 Panthers win. Despite outshooting Florida by a whopping 44-18 total, it just wasn't enough as defensive breakdowns and more inspired play by the ex-Devil Clemmensen (now 2-0 against us this year) led to another damaging defeat.
Almost from the opening faceoff, you had a feeling of what the night could be about as the Devils jumped out of the gate getting five of the first six shots on net including one from Brian Rolston that dribbled through the crease but just wide. We couldn't cash in and the pendulum started to swing the other way as the Devils didn't concede many scoring chances but a couple of them were whoppers like a breakaway by Shawn Matthais that Brodeur had to stop or a Nathan Horton shot that rang off the post. Brodeur almost cost himself in the first when he tried to play a puck but it slipped outside the trapezoid of doom and he got caught out of the net, but fortunately Patrik Elias helped clear it.
After a more evenly played period than I would have liked, the Devils came out in the second determined to end the illusion that the Panthers had a chance, getting the first nine shots on net this time including a goal from Elias just 59 seconds in. Elias's goal was created by his whole line, as Zach Parise started the play with a shot on net, and Danius Zubrus tipped the rebound off the post, but fortunately it caromed right to Elias's stick on the other side of the net and he put it in for his 17th goal of the year. New Jersey kept dominating right until the Panther's goal which seemingly came out of nowhere, as Michael Frolik's unscreened wrister from just inside the blueline at 6:03 ended Brodeur's more than two and a half-game long shutout streak and tied it at one.
Frolik's goal also sent the Devils into Operation Shutdown for the latter half of the second period and beginning of the third as well. In the first six minutes of the second period we got nine shots on goal, then after Frolik scored we had two the rest of the period and still came out in the third asleep as well, letting Radek Dvorak get open in the slot just 1:14 into the third and he quickly fired a wrister past Brodeur to give the Panthers a lead they wouldn't relinquish. One more defensive breakdown at 12:23 led to Nathan Horton scoring off a rebound for what turned out to be the decisive goal.
It was around this point that the Devils suddenly decided to start playing again, and all of a sudden they bombarded Clemmensen again, putting no fewer than twenty-two shots on net in the final period. While I wasn't keeping official track I'd swear at least fifteen of them came in those final six-seven minutes as maybe someone informed the Devils what was at stake here. Finally, we got on the board again when David Clarkson tipped a Mike Mottau shot home at 14:46 for his eleventh goal of the year (and Paul Martin got an assist as well).
Still, it would be the ex-Devil Clemmensen who made the difference in the end. If our loss to him at the Rock was attributable to a no-show, in this game he had almost two games' worth of work to do, particuarly in the final minutes when we finally received a rare power play for the final 93 seconds (just our second of the night, lately we seem to be getting only like one or two chances a game). We had some excellent scoring opportunities but in a screwed up way, just as I worry we'll blow it late with a one-goal lead, I thought we weren't going to find a way to get the tying goal in this one. Sure enough, despite being outshot 22-5 in the third period, Florida held on for the win.
Despite the Penguins' romp over the Islanders in their final regular season game at the Igloo, the Devils still control their own destiny as far as winning the division though now it will be harder because Sunday's game against the Sabres will almost certainly have meaning now. We're tied with Pittsburgh in points and wins but still have the head-to-head tiebreaker against them, and are one point ahead of the Sabres. Every one of the three teams plays Saturday and Sunday, with Pittsburgh going to Atlanta and Long Island, Buffalo going to Ottawa and here, and us staying home to play the Islanders and Sabres.
Even if the top seeds were more set in stone, the bottom seeds are also in such flux nobody has any idea who they'd play. All that's certain is if we do drop to the four seed, we'll play Ottawa in the first round since they're locked into the five. If we're the two or the three, we could play any one of four teams - Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia or the Rangers. Boston and Montreal both have 87 points and are tied for the sixth and seventh seeds with Montreal having the edge in wins but the Bruins having a game in hand. Boston plays home against Carolina Saturday then at Washington Sunday afternoon on NBC, while the Habs take on rival Toronto at the Bell Centre after bad losses to the Islanders and Carolina.
Of course then there's the Flyers and Rangers' scenario which is intertwined at this point. Philly has 86 points and the Rangers 84, with their last two games coming against each other starting tonight at the Garden in a do-or-die showdown for the home team. Simply put, the Rangers need two wins (with no more than one in OT) to make the playoffs, yet they could finish as high as sixth if they do get those two wins depending on what Montreal and Boston do in their games. Right now any of those four teams could all finish sixth...and they could all finish ninth.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Scott Clemmensen (42/44 saves)
- Nathan Horton (goal, assist, +1)
- Michael Frolik (goal, assist, +1)