Saturday, November 13, 2010

Kovy turns boos to cheers with OT winner

One of the great things about sports - particuarly ones with long seasons like the NHL - is the chance for instant redemption when things turn sour. After a nightmarish end to Wednesday's shootout loss for Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils came a dream end to Friday's overtime win against the Oilers, as the $100 million man once again found the puck on his stick with the game on the line - but this time did not miss, firing a slapshot past Devan Dubnyk with just ninety-three seconds left in OT to give New Jersey a 4-3 win, its first at home all season after an 0-5-2 start in the Rock.

As is usually the case with happy endings, there was very little indication we'd be getting one last night, especially with Jamie Langenbrunner missing the game due to an upper-body injury just as he was starting to get going. Even with the return to the lineup of Martin Brodeur and the embattled Brian Rolston, the team had to come from two goals down early and find a way to win when trailing after the second period (we were 0-10 in such situations before last night).

Edmonton had lost their previous two games by a combined score of 13-3 but they came out flying in this game against what seemed to be a sulking Devils team after the events of Wednesday night. Colin Fraser (former Flyers reject) scored twice in the first ten minutes, the first time after Anton Volchenkov of all people missed a hip check and Fraser went to the net to stuff in a puck. Our second goal given up was even weirder as a puck got dumped into the zone and hung in the air for several seconds before coming down right on an Oilers stick, and eventually Fraser beat Brodeur again with a screened shot. Now down 2-0 to the worst team in the West, I was really worried this would be an ugly rock bottom last night.

Redemption seemed to be the theme of the night in general though, with the first case being after rookie Alexander Vasyunov found the puck on his stick on a two-on-the goalie breakaway, which should have been almost an automatic goal, or bare minimum a shot on net. Instead Vasyunov made a terrible pass behind the other skater and the play died without even an attempt on net. Vasyunov would only have to wait minutes for his redemption though, as he did score on a terrific one-timer in front for his first goal in the NHL. Travis Zajac had the primary assist on the goal, with Patrik Elias also recording a point on Vasyunov's goal at 15:43. Although the Devils dominated the final minutes of the first period the score would remain at 2-1 going into the locker room.

In the second period, the Oilers withstood our early surge out of the locker room and restored their two-goal lead just after the five-minute mark when they took advantage of a two-on-one, even though Henrik Tallinder actually made a good play to stop the initial pass and Brodeur made the save off the rebound it seemed like too many Devils were spectators, content with being in the right position instead of stopping the play itself and eventually Sam Gagner finally put the puck in, silencing the 14,650 at the Prudential Center once again.

Showing the patience of a Tom Renney team, the Oilers sat back and waited for us to keep self-destructing. And it did seem like for most of the period we were sulking on skates yet again, cursing our bad luck as the Devils showed absolutely no signs of life until just over three minutes remained in the period, when Rolston would get his first of the season off a rebound in front. Our line of Rolston-Danius Zubrus and David Clarkson looked pretty decent for the most part with all getting points on the Rolston goal, (and they played together some last year, which helped) even though Clarkson had yet another meltdown when we were down two goals in the first period, taking an instigator penalty and ten-minute misconduct trying to fire up the crowd with a fight against the Oilers' Zach Stortini. At least in that case Clarkson had the right idea, just hideous execution as he jumped the Oiler enforcer, who wanted no part of a road fight when his team had the lead.

Still, even after Rolston scored we were down 3-2 going into the third period against the only other team in the NHL with as few as ten points on the season. With just nine minutes remaining in the game though, another rookie got his first NHL goal as Mattias Tedenby scored on a deflection of an Andy Greene point shot on the power play. Jason Arnott also recorded an assist on the goal, which tied the game at three and ensured a memorable night for two kids who both had excellent games and deserved to score. Indeed, Tedenby could have had the winner late in the third but was robbed off an excellent glove save from Dubnyk.

Then came the dreaded overtime where the Devils were just 1-3 so far this season, with the only winner being scored from Kovy - in Buffalo ironically enough. While we dominated overtime, it took a Dustin Penner tripping call resulting in a power play for us to achieve the final breakthrough. Just when it looked like we were going to be guilty of overpassing away the 4-on-3 advantage Kovy got the puck near the half-boards (after passes from Tallinder and Elias), ripped a slapshot past Dubnyk and set off a mass celebration in the crowd and on the ice.

Maybe in the grand scheme of things last night's game will be irrelevant if we don't do well on this upcoming three-game road trip to Boston, Toronto and St. Louis - at least a couple of them are winnable games with the Bruins missing top centers Marc Savard and David Krejci and the Leafs having come crashing to earth after their little winning streak to open the season. We do end the road trip playing the Blues, who have looked surprisingly good so far this season and as one Ranger fan I work with put it, they looked like the old Devils playing defense after beating the Rangers in a 2-0 shutout last week.

Still, last night was a much-needed event at the Rock, with fans hooting and hollering after the game as if it was a playoff game, although the Friday night crowd probably contributed to it since there tends to be more alcohol involved at the end of the week when you don't have the kids in the stands that weekend games provide. Certainly, Kovy needed that goal (in front of his supporters at home) to move forward after a tumultous offseason and start to his 'real' Devils tenure this year. Having the kids contribute and Rolston be in the mix was also important for us going forward.

If I had one complaint about last night, it was that our bench seemed to mistime our line changes way too much, particularly in the second period when Johnny MacLean sent on our fourth line just as the officials were dropping the puck, we were lucky all that happened was the play being blown dead and the three forwards going back to the bench before they could change. Later in the period we made an even more egregious mistake as everyone changed off just as Kovy found himself with a potential two-on-one or even partial breakaway chance. With nobody to help him out though and all the Oilers still on the ice, eventually the play died.

I'm also not a fan of our current defense pairings, instead of keeping Colin White with rookie Matt Taormina which was actually a pretty decent pairing, White got put with Greene, and Taormina with Tallinder. Maybe the idea is to split up what's been a hideous pairing of Tallinder-Greene but I don't understand why you can't just put Greene with Volchenkov and then have Tallinder play with Magnan as our third d-pairing. Plus the staff bingo-balls the forward lines too much though last night the combinations worked and stayed together much the whole game.

At least last night's win buys some much-needed breathing room for the heavily criticized MacLean, who basically half the fanbase expects to get fired and I heard from two different season ticket holders last night rumors that he may well get the axe if play didn't start to pick up. Although I still don't think Lou Lamoriello would pull the plug on Johnny Mac after seven years of getting him ready for the job, he (Lou) is really responsible for all of the fans' assumptions in his case with some of his random firings in the past - the Claude Julien fiasco comes to mind - and general instability of the Devils job.

Still, there's a lot of work to do before we're out of the woods in any 5-10-2 we really need a winning streak, that we haven't had all season. After getting the weekend off we try to win two in a row for the first time Monday in Boston, against Julien's Bruins. Hopefully we're up for the challenge and start to get back in the playoff race here.

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