Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kovy scores second game-winner in two nights to power Devils over Sharks



Going into Friday night's game against the Sharks, if there's been one team as hot as the Devils over this last month it was the team that showed up in the white and teal. Sharks coach Todd McClellan - a one-time assistant under Devils boss Jacques Lemaire - had his team on a 9-0-1 tear heading into the Rock two nights ago. And while the Devils were going into the game on an 11-1-2 roll that's starting to get noticed around the league, they were also playing their seventh game in eleven days, and third in four nights with the first two having been dramatic OT games.

Yet, despite falling behind for the third straight game in the third period, this suddenly resilient group somehow found a way to get it done again. In a case of deja vu, Ilya Kovalchuk again played hero at 16:01 of the third period, scoring on a wrister against the grain right off a faceoff win from Travis Zajac, giving the Devils just enough offense to win on a night where they only generated three scoring chances in the first forty minutes. If the rest of the team may have been tired, at least Johan Hedberg showed no fatigue from his fifth game in eight days (one being the two-period relief appearance in Montreal) by making 31 saves and keeping the team in the game early when they didn't have their legs.

Momentarily the Devils pulled to within 11 points of a playoff spot before Atlanta's win over the Rangers vaulted them back into eighth place and made the number 12. With four days off before our next critical game - another home showdown with the Hurricanes - I'm trying to avoid paying attention to the standings as much as possible but know Carolina's win over the Thrashers today put them 14 up on us for the last playoff spot. Yes, the playoffs remain a longshot at best, but nevertheless there's a little magic in the air right now for the team with NJ on their crests. Games have gone from being over when the Devils fell behind even by one goal to just getting started.

Indeed, there was very little to watch in the first two periods Friday as the Sharks outshot the Devils in the first two periods, including a 12-2 margin in the first. There weren't many penalties called either, the first time the refs used their whistle for anything other than a stoppage of play was when Brian Rolston was sent to the box for interference in the dying moments of the second period. Though the penalty killers did their job keeping the Sharks off the board, San Jose finally broke the ice at 6:08 of the third when Patrick Marleau scored off a rebound in front.

Rather than demoralizing this new Devils team, Marleau's goal seemed to energize them. After a Henrik Tallinder penalty, the Devils drew two straight calls on the Sharks setting up a critical 4-on-3. With everyone in the building including me getting impatient over all the passing, finally Rolston one-timed a Kovy pass and beat Shark goalie Antti Niemi to tie the game at 9:12. Though it was just Rolston's eighth goal of the year, he's continued his rejuvanated play over the last month and was even in a jovial mood during the postgame when Chico Resch brought up how his being waived seemed like last season.

In a sense, anything that happened in the first half does seem like last season now. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the highest-paid player on the team. After going through the darkest stretch of his career in the first half of the season, Kovy's been reborn under Lemaire and despite only getting one shot on net Friday, he made it count big-time, scoring his 19th goal of the season with just 3:59 remaining. Even with the fact his goal total's going to be down compared to a 'normal' Kovalchuk year he's made a lot of them count, scoring three overtime winners to go along with Friday's decider late.

With the game in the balance, Torrey Mitchell's careless high-sticking penalty on Danius Zubrus essentially decided it, giving the Devils a four-minute power play with just over two minutes remaining. Thankfully Zubrus escaped relatively unharmed, other than a cut below his eye that needed stitches. Though Patrik Elias's empty-netter was a half-second too late to beat the buzzer, the Devils still held on for another huge one-goal victory, their fifth one-goal win in this stretch of seven games in eleven days where the team went an incredible 6-0-1. Amazingly, the team that was nineteen games under .500 at the 41-game mark is now just eight under with 26 games still to play.

After a well-deserved four days off another big week's coming up for the guys in red and white, with two games against the Hurricanes sandwiching a Friday night home showdown with the Rangers, all big games if the Devils are going to catch up somehow since both teams are also fighting for the last couple of spots in the East. And yet, despite these being big games they're also house money ones...I mean, who would have thought it even possible to have big games at this point of the season from where we were? I'm just hoping it continues for as long as possible now that this team's finally fun to watch for the first time in a year.

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