Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kovy's latest OT winner continues Devils' roll

After a summer of nonsense and our fall of discontent, now we're all finally seeing why the Devils went to such ridiculous lengths to secure Ilya Kovalchuk's services this offseason. Kovy's latest power-play OT game-winner with just 24.9 seconds remaining gave the Devils yet another hard-fought 2-1 win over the Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins, putting them back within nine points of a playoff spot with two games in hand on the eighth-place Canes and three in hand with the seventh-place Rangers. Along with Kovy, our other key players also led the way, as Travis Zajac scored the team's other goal in the second period and Martin Brodeur won his third straight outing since returning to the lineup, only giving up one goal in each game.

While you may look at the box score and say 'ho-hum, another 2-1 Devils win', this game was actually emotional, definitely one of the most satisfying endings I've experienced at the Prudential Center since Game 5 of the 2009 playoffs. This game got intense early when Kris Letang of all people started trying to mug Zajac in the corner, far away from where the play went towards his own team's zone. Finally Zajac took the matter into his own hands and dropped the gloves, outdueling Letang in a junior lightweight bout. Though the officials missed Letang's obvious roughing before the fight, it still proved costly to the Pens as their defenseman didn't have his jersey properly tied down and was thus given a game misconduct.

That was one of the last breaks we got from the refs all night, as they missed several offsides on Pittsburgh in the first period, a slew of non-calls during the game (we didn't get one power play chance in regulation) - and worse than that was to come. Zajac did score a satisfying goal at 3:43 of the second period, though he caught somewhat of a break as he was to the right of Pens goalie Brent Johnson and managed to swat a bouncing puck by him. Fellow linemate Nick Palmeri and defenseman Andy Greene each got assists on Zajac's tenth goal of the year, which put the Devils up 1-0...but not for long.

Just over two minutes later the Pens scored a somewhat contreversial equalizer to tie it up. Oh there was nothing screwy about Tyler Kennedy's shot itself, which cleanly beat Brodeur at 5:58. What really galled me was the cement-footed linesman on the play, who didn't even attempt to get out of the way of a slow clearance around the boards (I think it was Henrik Tallinder). Kovy was waiting by where the puck should have been, in position to chip it out but instead the puck never got to him, deflecting forward instead to Kennedy, who beat a surprised Brodeur to tie the game.

Honestly, I can't stand this league right now. I really can't. It's not bad enough they tried to make an example of us in the offseason for the Kovy contract and have been doing their level best not to give us any breaks this season but having the Penguins (their golden children) in the building only makes the nonsense that much worse. At best over the last several games we've been playing by pre-lockout rules with few power plays for each team, but in situations where we're clearly dominant and deserve power plays we don't get them even then. Not that our power play's been great by any stretch but it would help getting to use it more than once or twice a night.

Not to mention just the general inconstency of the league, refusing to fine the Penguins for losing control of their bench in that mess with the Isles when they had a guy suspended ten games and the Isles didn't. And the Pens' Matt Cooke - probably the dirtiest player around - getting only four games as a repeat offender while the Devils' Anton Volchenkov gets three including a crucial game with Carolina as a first-time offender. Thankfully last night in the end, the game wasn't about the refs although you'll probably hear a different tune from Pittsburgh with the sense of entitlement they have as a franchise and fanbase. More on that later though.

I do have to give Pittsburgh credit for this much, they forechecked like crazy - causing numerous mistakes and turnovers by our players and watching some of the replay of the telecast early this morning, coach Jacques Lemaire looked prescient when he was concerned about the pressure the Penguins put on the puck. I actually thought the Pens would try to be more defensive without their big guns but instead of being passive, they were agressive. Still, after a bad first period (by Lemaire's own admission) the Devils picked it up in the second period and could have had a winner in regulation multiple times, with Palmeri ringing one off the crossbar in the second and Patrik Elias flubbing a two-on-one one-timer attempt late in the third.

Fortunately our defense held, about the only complaint I had from them last night was letting Mike Rupp stand almost skate-to-skate in front of Brodeur on both power plays. Pittsburgh got some of their best chances of the night on those two power plays just by using the big ex-Devil as a screen. Funny how our power play seldom does this, at least not until the nick of time last night. Finally as the game sped into overtime (and I mean sped, it was like 9:10 - usually games end around 9:25, 9:30) the Devils caught one of their few breaks of the game when Zybanek Michalek took a penalty late in the overtime, giving us our only power play chance of the night. While what he did was probably obstruction, it was actually relatively light given the stuff Pittsburgh had done which had gone unpenalized earlier. Still, Michalek's whining as he went to the box annoyed me, just another sign of the entitlement that franchise has.

Our power play was - for lack of a better analogy - like passing a kidney stone, despite all the open ice on the 4-on-3 there was still too much passing and not enough shooting, except from Rolston who had one or two shots blocked during that sequence. Finally the Devils started to work the puck deep though, and another Rolston shot rebounded to Elias right behind the net. With Johnson still down on the play and scrambling to get back up, Elias alertly found a wide-open Kovy in front and Kovy one-timed it past Johnson for his 23rd goal, nine of which have been game-winners (giving Kovy the league lead along with his bff in Washington Alex Ovechkin).

Kovy's goal set off a cavalcade of emotion, from the sellout crowd whose chanting was so loud I basically could hear none of the post-game interview with Kovy on the ice to the players on the ice themselves. Kovy's goal celebrations are really reminiscent of an Ovechkin, or Jeff Friesen in 2003. Not showing off at all, just a case of someone enthusiastic about helping his team. From all accounts Kovy went just as nuts on Zajac's goal earlier in the game as he did his own, but I do like watching his voodoo-like celebrations of his own goals.

Last night's win was the Devils' eleventh straight home game without a regulation loss (10-0-1) and amazingly it put us just two games under NHL .500 overall, with our next chance to keep the roll going tomorrow afternoon on Long Island. Though the Islanders have probably slipped out of the race by now themselves, you know they'll still be fired up for the game with kids and vets alike trying to secure jobs for next year. Not to mention that team's always a pain in the neck for us (especially down there) and has gotten surprisingly good goaltending from ex-Ranger prospect Al Montoya.

While things aren't going to get any easier, despite much being made of this six-game stretch where we face the Isles, Atlanta and Ottawa twice each (all non-playoff teams) you do start to get the feeling that something magical's in the air.

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