Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kovy's highlight reel OT winner keeps Devils rolling

If you want a symbol of just how preposterous this month has been for the Devils, you need look no further than Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime winning goal tonight to find one. In a move that Devils fans have been waiting for since he was traded here just over a year ago, Kovy went on a sick end-to-end rush that looked like he hit the turbo button video-game style, skating around both Leaf defensemen and sneaking a wristshot past Leaf goalie James Reimer. Reimer (a recent callup that's been playing well) was sensational with 37 saves on the night, but finally got beaten by a great player who's now starting to show his talent as a Devil.

It's been a while since the halcyon days of Martin Brodeur vs. Curtis Joseph in the playoffs and the antics of Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker spicing up a great rivalry a decade ago but tonight's Leafs-Devils game in Toronto was worthy of that past history, and with good reason since both teams are fighting for a playoff spot - and it's preposterous to say that as a Devil fan but now there has to be a ring of truth to it. What was a 27-point deficit a month ago has been cut more in half, to 13 thanks to tonight's results (with Carolina also losing in regulation at Philly).

Going into the game, despite the team's big win against the Canes two nights ago they were coming in under a bit of a cloud after the heavy-handed three game suspension of defenseman Anton Volchenkov for an elbow on Jay Harrison in that game. Sometimes I can't stand this league...Volchenkov, a first-time offender and clean player throughout his career gets three games for something that was admittedly a penalty and suspendable play but really not all that bad. At least not when you compare it to Matt Cooke, a repeat offender and dirty player who only got one more game for his umpteenth reviewable hit, and a boarding penalty that was far worse than Volchenkov's errant elbow (which he tried to pull up on a bit).

At best I look at it as a miscarriage of justice, at worst I wouldn't be surprised if the league added an extra game just to spite us, since the third game Volchenkov will miss is our second showdown with the Hurricanes next Wednesday. Not to mention we didn't get a single penalty call in our favor for almost five periods of hockey until late in the second tonight. It's already been documented that the Devils were persona non grata with the league in the late '80's after Donutgate, I wouldn't be shocked if the league was giving us the business (still) even after taking their pound of flesh for the Kovy nonsense this summer.

In any case, Mark Fraser replaced Volchenkov in the lineup after sitting out the last four games and didn't play all that great with just over fourteen minutes and two minor penalties, but hey that was one less than Volchenkov two nights ago. And once again Johan Hedberg was in net for Brodeur, who (surprise, suprise) is now day-to-day which will soon turn to week-to-week with an inoperable knee injury. Even GM Lou Lamoriello admitted Brodeur will have to rehab his knee before returning so it seems as if the affable Swede will be between the pipes for the forseeable future.

Yet in spite of having no Brodeur, Volchenkov and the continued absence of Zach Parise, this Devils team continues to find ways to win. Usually it's been by getting ahead and staying ahead but in the last two games the team's rallied from behind - twice coming back from one-goal deficits against the Canes and again having to overcome a deficit after a broken play 5:18 into the second period where Hedberg made several saves before finally Phil Kessel made a pretty pass to Nikolai Kulemin in front for an unstoppable goal, especially with defenseman Colin White unable to help out in front after losing his stick.

Trailing by one going into the third period, with Reimer continuing his hot play since being called up things looked bad. Enter Mark Fayne and Danius Zubrus. Fayne - in his first year from Providence College - has shown a talent for getting the puck to the net and he did so again with a shot that found Zubrus's stick in front for a sweet deflection goal at 3:23, Zubie's eleventh of the season. Leading point-getter Patrik Elias also had an assist on Zubrus's goal, as that line continued its steady play. With the game tied, the Devils threw everything at the Leafs to try to get a regulation winner, a refreshing change from the sit back and get a point mentality so many teams have these days.

Of course with our precarious position two points is essential on most nights, especially when you can keep a team in front of you from getting one, but despite the team's best efforts it looked like we were going to be headed to a shootout to settle the matter of the second point - until Kovy struck with the team's biggest goal of the year. Yes, it was the big Russian's third OT winner of the year but neither of the first two were quite as spectacular as this one, which will now thankfully replace his shootout flub against the Sabres earlier in the season as the signature moment for #17 in 2010-11. Fellow ex-Thrasher Anssi Salmela got the assist on Kovy's eighteenth goal of the year, and he played well in his own right getting over twenty minutes of icetime without any of the shakiness that characterized his play a few nights ago against the Panthers.

With this game behind them, the Devils now have one more task tomorrow night in this brutal stretch of seven games in eleven nights (5-0-1 so far) before getting a well-deserved four days off - facing off against the Sharks, who are almost as hot as we are with their five straight wins. Not to mention they come in with a Calder Trophy favorite in Logan Couture. But hey, this team's already done the improbable just in getting back to nine games under .500 and thirteen points back of a playoff spot with twenty-seven left to play. Might as well keep defying the odds and remain unbeaten in regulation during this brutal eleven-day post All-Star break stretch.

Notes: Jacques Lemaire reached a milestone tonight, getting the six hundredth win of his career. Congratulations to the coach, who had a beaming smile on the bench when his pet project (Kovy) scored the winner. Our only lineup change from Wednesday besides subbing Fraser for the suspended Volchenkov was replacing Tim Sestito with Adam Mair.

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