Friday, March 11, 2011

Devils' power play springs to life in dramatic OT win at Atlanta

For weeks and months I've been rolling my eyes at the Devils' powerless play, which has been for the most part hopelessly bad since the middle of last season - particularly after Tuesday night when a nearly two-minute five-on-three that went dry proved to be the difference in a 2-1 loss to the lowly Senators at home. Eventually there was going to come a time when the Devils needed the power play to be the difference if they were going to keep this wild, unexpected ride going.

That time was tonight, as the Devils scored not one, not two but three - yes THREE power play goals, coming from behind twice and winning a wild 3-2 game in OT at Atlanta. New Jersey's win put them at 66 points with fifteen games left, eight points back of the Rangers for the final playoff spot with two games in hand. More help arrived on the out-of-town scoreboard during the game as the Capitals beat the Hurricanes in overtime, leaving us six back of the ninth-place team, with a game in hand. Most likely those are the two teams we'll ultimately have to pass if we're going to complete a miracle run, as the Sabres are threatening to run away, going 5-1-1 in what was supposed to be a killer eight-game stretch (a home game against Detroit followed by a monster seven-game road trip).

However for most of the night it looked as if the out-of-town scoreboard and the standings would hold little relevance as the Devils again maddeningly played down to the level of their opposition and tried to win 1-0. Really, since our game in Dallas three weeks ago the Devils have operated in almost a bunker mode, scoring just seven goals in their previous eleven games. Sometimes it feels as if we're hanging on for dear life like a team that's going to lose a big playoff lead instead of having the atitude of a loosey-goosey one trying to complete a historic comeback. Yeah, it's nice that the Devils have smashed a modern NHL record by throwing up a goose egg in the first period for fifteen straight games but eventually you have to score to win.

Our prevent offense cost us against Ottawa and looked like it was going to cost us again when the Thrashers took a second-period lead after Thrasher captain Andrew Ladd found a wide-open Blake Wheeler towards the left of goal and he snapped a terrific wrist shot past Martin Brodeur at 10:14. With the game teetering on the balance, the Devils' power play got a chance at redemption when two quick penalties on Atlanta gave the Devils a minute and fifty-one seconds on a five-on-three. For the longest time, the man advantage continued its usual struggles and looked like it was going to chunk this one away too until finally Travis Zajac caught a break and flubbed a shot near an open net but the puck bounced close enough to his stick for the centerman to get another whack at it and put it in for his eleventh goal of the season at 12:27 (with just sixteen seconds left on the 5-on-3).

You would think the game-tying goal - assisted on by Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston - would inspire the Devils but instead it was the Thrashers who dominated the rest of the period, even getting a shorthanded breakaway in the dying seconds of the period and were fortunate that Brodeur stoned the now-ancient Radek Dvorak (amazing that I remember him as a teenager during the Panthers' Cinderella run in '96). Although the Devils started the third period better, they were nearly done in by a contreversial sequence which started with a ticky-tack foul called on David Clarkson to go along with a clear slashing penalty by one of the Thrashers on Anton Volchenkov that wasn't called - giving the Thrashers a power play instead of what should have been a four-on-four. Moments later Dustin Byfuglien 's rocket from the point beat Brodeur, with a contreversial assist from Nik Antropov as the big Russian clearly leaned on top of Brodeur while the shot was coming in but no goaltender interference was called.

At this point I was mad at everyone, mad at the team for not being agressive and mad at the officials for trying to screw us again. Fortunately the team themselves kept their cool, with the young Swede Mattais Tedenby drawing a penalty and once-favorite son Ilya Kovalchuk made the boos on himself even louder when he scored his 25th goal on the power play at 7:51 off a rebound. Rookies Nick Palmeri and Mark Fayne assisted on Kovy's goal, which he puncuated by slamming his fists on the boards. It was Kovy who termed this game a 'must-win' yesterday and he again contributed a dramatic third-period goal, this time to tie the game against his former team. At about this time the news came down that the Canes had lost in regulation to the Caps, thus making both teams happy since the Thrashers are still ahead of us, after all.

With the final seconds ticking down in regulation the Devils did their best to deny the Thrashers any points but their suddenly agressive approach nearly backfired when Chris Thorburn got a breakaway as the clock ticked down but got his shot off way after the buzzer (and was stopped by Brodeur anyway). After a tripping penalty on Fayne in the OT the Devils dodged another bullet by killing off a two-minute four-on-three that seemed like it took two hours, especially with the big guns of Byfuglien and the recently returned Tobias Enstrom looming on the man advantage. Yet after killing that off there was still enough time for Evander Kane to take a penalty in the final sixty-six seconds of overtime, giving us our sixth power play chance of the night.

Proving perhaps that repetition is the best medicine for what had been an ailing power play, the Devils would score their third of the night with Zajac getting his second on an eerily similar play than his first goal. This time however, Zajac flubbed his initial shot after a crisp cross-ice pass from Elias but the puck somehow still found a way in. It was such an odd play I was worried Zajac might have kicked it in, but no it was a perfectly legal goal that not even Toronto could screw around with and the Devils pulled out a critical win with just forty-two seconds remaining in overtime. To add insult to injury for Thrasher fans, Kovy got a secondary assist on the game-winning goal, giving him two goals and an assist in his two games back in Atlanta this year.

Fortunately this one finished a lot different from the first game in late December, a humiliating 7-1 loss where Brodeur got pulled, goon Eric Boulton somehow got a hat trick and it proved to be the penultimate game in the ill-fated tenure of John MacLean as head coach. While the team did managed to beat the Thrashers in New Jersey on New Year's Eve (with Kovy scoring again and ex-Thrashers Johan Hedberg getting the win that night) there was still a bit of a debt to be paid tonight. Nearly thirty points behind the Thrashers at that point, the Devils are now within two of both Atlanta and Toronto with a game in hand on each team. With a win tomorrow night at home against the Isles, the Devils could potentially pull into a tenth-place tie with the Leafs and Thrashers and pull even closer to a playoff spot based on multiple out-of-town scores tomorrow night.

Of course that all depends on the Devils beating the Isles for the second time in a week, no easy task despite the fact the Isles' own last-ditch run looks like it's already come up short. At least this time we'll have a sellout crowd on our side trying to will the team to win. Hopefully our next one-game season is just as successful as tonight's was.

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