In the end, after all the injuries during the first half of the season and inconsistencies of the second half, the Devils found themselves in a familiar position after their 81st game of the season last night - standing as Atlantic Division champions. Our dominant 7-1 win over Martin Biron and the last-place Isles coupled with the Penguins' surprising 1-0 loss in Atlanta was enough to give New Jersey its ninth division crown in thirteen seasons as well as our twelfth 100+ point season.
While I did not think Pittsburgh would lose in Atlanta (or Long Island today) with the division on the line, I do admit feeling confident in our result when I saw Biron in net. Just like some players - think Alexei Morozov against us way back when - do well against certain teams, others somehow struggle against the same team time after time. Biron's a prime example since he's always had a checkered history against the Devils with an 8-15-2-2 record, 3.21 GAA and .894 save percentage in twenty-seven decisions, including last night.
Even though Biron would give up a couple of bad goals, I'm not sure anyone - even ex-mate Scott Clemmensen who's been so good against us this year - would have denied the Devils last night. From the opening faceoff to the final buzzer they came charged and ready to play. Danius Zubrus got the party started at 10:54 with his tenth goal of the year, throwing one on net that bounced off a diving Islander defenseman as he was trying (unsuccessfully) to keep Zach Parise away from the net. Parise and Paul Martin got the assists on Zubrus's goal, which was reviewed for a moment even though it looked obvious from a cursory replay that there was no way Parise could have kicked the puck in and in fact didn't even touch it.
Parise would get a goal of his own at 14:18 - his 38th, which came as so many of the others have before, on a nifty turnaround deflection just in front of the crease with Colin White and Travis Zajac getting the assists on that goal. Just ninety seconds later, Biron coughed up a bad goal to Dean McAmmond, who wristed one that trickled through the goaltender's pads and gave McAmmond his eighth goal of the year off of assists from Rod Pelley and Mike Mottau. Even in the period's final seconds the Devils intensely attacked the net trying to get a fourth goal...that showed me we were ready to play on this night.
Of course, even on a good night the power play's usually a concern and we clunked our first two chances with the man advantage but finally in the second period we had something of a breakthrough with not one, but two goals on the PP. First, Patrik Elias put home his 18th goal at 11:16 off of assists from Ilya Kovalchuk and Andy Greene, a goal that was intially credited to Parise but he didn't touch the puck after all. Showing that everyone wanted in on the fun, even Brian Rolston unleashed a rocket from the blueline at 19:11 for his 20th goal, which seems hard to believe considering his utter lack of production since November. Kovalchuk and Zajac assisted on that goal, which put the Devils up five and left no doubt about the outcome, at least the one in New Jersey.
Surprisingly the Penguins were down to Atlanta by this point and seeing that score during the second intermission drew a nice cheer from the crowd. Their game was just a little behind ours though, so I was wondering what would happen afterward, would the Devils show the game on the jumbotron or anything if it was still going on after our buzzer? In the end that would prove to be a moot point anyway and for now, I was still enjoying the goal rush. Kovalchuk wristed one home - his 41th overall and 10th as a Devil - at 8:47 from Greene and Zajac to make it 6-0. We were even winning the fights as Rod Pelley and Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond's wins on seperate bouts in the second and third respectively gave the crowd even more to cheer about.
During the entire night, there were only two blemishes...one was seeing our mercenary t-shirt guy Cameron return after he hadn't been around this year. In prior seasons he got paid good money - up to two grand a game to act like a nut and throw sweaty t-shirts. On one occasion last night he actually wiped his t-shirt with sweat before handing it to a fan, which was gross enough (and not a first either) but what really ticked me off was seeing him come towards our section in the uppers and start throwing t-shirts during a Devils power play! It's one thing to do that act when there's a commercial and play is stopped but to actually do it during play and see fans react to it annoyed me no end. Especially since I could have gotten one of the non-sweaty t-shirts which went just over my head if I wasn't actually trying to watch a hockey game at a hockey game.
On a more benign note, the only other slight imperfection was when Matt Moulson scored on an Islanders power play with just 6:50 left to spoil the shutout. Granted, Martin Brodeur has more than enough goose eggs by this point to hold the NHL record, but personally I could have used another one for my fantasy team which is in second place by a single point with one day to go in a rotisserie-league season. That shutout would have put me in a dead heat with the leader on the final day - oh well. Elias would score the final goal of the night at 18:24 with assists from Martin and Parise.
Showing how much of a team effort last night's win was, all eighteen of our skaters had ten minutes or more of icetime and twelve registered points. Only Kovalchuk and Martin had more than twenty minutes of icetime last night and on each of the seven goals there were multiple assists. We outshot the Islanders in every period and by a 37-19 total for the game in another dominant performance that showed the Devils are determined to be ready for the playoffs. Really you have to say our last four games (despite the loss to Clemmensen) were all good performances and it's been quite a while since you could make that case for that long a stretch of games.
One cherry was left to put on top of last night's sundae as the Penguins were still trailing with about four minutes left with the last score update I saw. Me and my friend stayed for the three stars and interview with Kovalchuk on-ice since we had an hour before our train arrived at Broad Street, so on our way out we heard a commotion and one fan screamed that the Penguins lost and we were division champs so we all cheered and clapped on our way down the escalators. Even with all our division titles this is the first one I'd seen them clinch officially at home since the last few times they've won the division while on the road and before 2003-04 I didn't go to a lot of games every year. What a way to top off the start of Fan Appreciation weekend!
Last night the Devils gave away a team poster, tonight they'll give away a mini-Brodeur stick to commemorate the shutout record as well as other 'random' raffle prizes. Of course the majority of them went to the lower bowls but surprisingly the uppers got a decent number of the good prizes during the second intermission including an autographed Parise stick. To date the only thing I've ever 'won' at a Devils game was a copy of Role Models - the unrated version, which I never have gotten around to watching. But hey I'll take another banner, for now anyway.
Our real challenges still lie ahead and our seeding and matchup isn't finalized yet. Any kind of point for us today against the Sabres (supposedly with Patrick Lalime in net according to our Buffalo blogger on NJDevs) and we'll win the #2 seed. Depending on the result of the Flyers-Rangers game which starts two hours before ours, we'd either play Montreal or the Flyers. If we lose in regulation, we'll be the #3 seed and play the Bruins, who are locked into the #6 despite an NBC game against the Caps this afternoon. How much does that suck for NBC, that they picked the Bruins-Caps game which has turned out to be utterly meaningless over Rangers-Flyers Armageddon with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser going home?
As far as the other matchups, Pittsburgh is locked into a first round series with Ottawa, now without Alexei Kovalev for the playoffs. Washington will either play the Habs in the event of a Flyers win or the Rangers if they should win. Boston will play either us or the Sabres, whoever finishes with the three seed. Out West, no matchups are determined yet and only three seeds - Vancouver at three, Phoenix at four and Colorado at eight - are set. If the Blackhawks beat Detroit today, they will finish with the top seed over the Sharks while a Detroit win would give them the fifth seed and a matchup with the 'Yotes. Detroit, Nashville and Los Angeles could all finish anywhere from fifth to seventh depending on the results of the Wings-Hawks game and the Kings' final tilt of the season at Colorado.
That's the only bad thing about having a Devils game to go to today, I can't take advantage of the Center Ice free preview and MSG to keep track of the scenarios. Of course it will be fun to get another giveaway, have an in-stadium celebration of another division title and find out what seed we get and who we play. Heck, we might see an oddity if the game is tied late with Lalime getting pulled for the extra attacker since Buffalo needs a regulation win to make any difference in their seeding.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Travis Zajac (four assists, +3)
- Zach Parise (goal, two assists, +3 and 7 SOG)
- Ilya Kovalchuk (goal, two assists, +1 and 6 SOG)