Monday, February 28, 2011

Stars keep Richards, Rangers add Mitchell on quiet Deadline Day

This deadline was a dud. Perhaps due to so many teams still in contention, there wasn't much activity, disappointing puckers around the stratosphere. With most big deals taking place prior to today with big names Tomas Kaberle (Bruins), Kris Versteeg (Flyers), Erik Johnson (Avs), Chris Stewart/Kevin Shattenkirk (Blues), Francois Beauchemin (Ducks), Bryan McCabe (Rangers), James Wisniewski (Habs), Dwayne Roloson (Bolts) and Brad Boyes (Sabres) all finding new homes, it didn't figure to be that busy.

Instead, calculated trades were the story with the exception of the Kings getting their big forward Dustin Penner for the steep price of D prospect Colten Teubert, a first round pick and a conditional '12 third rounder. A move which they needed once the Stars took big fish Brad Richards off the market, which in our opinion is the right decision for a dangerous club who if B-Rad comes back healthy could make some noise if they get in this Spring. The Kings and Rangers were Richards' chief suitors with Dallas very interested in Artem Anisimov, a 1st round pick and a prospect. Eerily similar to what we proposed the other day. Our guess is they coveted Brayden Schenn from Hollywood. But at the end of the day, with Richards still yet to return from a concussion despite being symptom free for five days, they probably couldn't maximize the potential free agent's value, making the choice very easy. If it works out, they take their best shot which is good news for Star fans like Twitter favorite starsfan10_91 who celebrated by re-changing to richardsfan91. :-) Why else do you go out and trade James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski?

While the Stars are now all in, it left the Rangers with little alternatives. So, Glen Sather turned to Toronto pal Brian Burke, acquiring forward depth in John Mitchell for a seventh round pick. The 26 year-old was decent his first two seasons used in a checking role, supplying energy for the Leafs. He's a good enough skater if the former '03 fifth round pick actually stays up with his likely destination Hartford. Not much else to say following another nail biting one-goal defeat to Kryptonite Tampa yesterday with two one-timer goals by Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier the difference- keeping the Rangers from gaining ground and only three up on Carolina, who added blueline help by swapping Sergei Samsonov to the Sunshine State for Bryan Allen.

At least new addition McCabe looked good in his debut, getting better as the game went on with the ex-Panther crunching Steve Downie against the boards and nearly tying it in the waning second with Henrik Lundqvist on the bench. Unlike a Post columnist who doesn't have a clue on why overpaying for a potential rental made no sense, the Rangers are better off waiting to take their shot at B-Rad come July 1. It's nothing like trading for a superstar who wanted New York, with Carmelo Anthony forcing his way out of Denver to come to the Knicks.

So, our team basically stands pat with hopefully Marian Gaborik able to return in a few weeks. Don't bank on it. Ruslan Fedotenko and Marc Staal are close to returning with the team's next big game against the Sabres, who actually made a real trade- sending a second rounder to St. Louis for Brad Boyes. Nice boost for Brian's team and even he was pleased sending me not one but two texts last night just as I was texting him. Haha. Buffalo trails eighth Carolina by two and us by five with games at hand on each. So, tomorrow's contest at MSG looms large.

Biron Done For Year: In the mean time, the Rangers got terrible news when valuable backup Martin Biron was struck by a puck during team practice and broke his collarbone. The former Sabre's been a great addition, providing superb goaltending, allowing John Tortorella to rest Lundqvist. He got into 17 games making 15 starts, posting an 8-6-0 record with a 2.13 GAA and an identical save percentage (.920) to our Vezina candidate.

Ironically, Lundqvist had started the last eight, going 4-4-0 with a 2.22 GAA and .922 save percentage while recording his league-leading eighth shutout in a 6-0 win at Washington Friday. Interestingly, Henrik has permitted three-or-more in eight of his last 11 starts. Encouraging is he gave up only two yesterday following a 35-save shutout. Dating back to Jan.20, he's allowed three+ in 10 of the last 14. All the more reason Biron's injury couldn't be worse timing, with it discovered too late. Unless they are lucky enough to find someone on the waiver wire, unknown Cam Talbot will backup Lundqvist starting tomorrow. In 13 starts with the Connecticut Whale, the 23 year-old undrafted free agent went 8-3-2 with a 2.42 GAA, .919 save percentage and two shutouts. How many starts are you going to trust in a rookie who's never been up before? A potential big problem for the final 18.

Arnott dealt to Caps: In a deal already mentioned in these parts by Hasan, the Devils unloaded Jason Arnott to the Caps for David Steckel and a second round pick in '12. I'm only going to echo what he already said about this move, which is an absolute steal for the Devils. Steckel is a great faceoff guy and will fit right in on a gritty New Jersey club pushing hard for the playoffs. He also is an effective forechecker who Devil fans will take to. That Lou Lamoriello also got a second round pick tossed in like it was Panther-esque speaks volumes. Between the trade for Dennis Wideman and this Arnott one, I frankly don't get what George McPhee's doing. He also gave away Tomas Fleischmann for Scott Hannan. Unfortunately for Fleischmann, he suffered a pulmonary embollism and is done for the year in Colorado.

One other deal of interest was Max Lapierre going to Vancouver along with former teammate Chris Higgins with both now adding character to a serious Cup contender. This is the Canucks' best shot. It's now or never for a team that has everything. The pressure's on.

Finally, Columbus and Phoenix hooked up on a two-for-two with the 'Yotes acquiring original Jacket Rotislav Klesla and ex-Ranger Dane Byers who of course winds up on Rangers West for Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto. Looks like a good deal for both clubs with Phoenix adding blueline depth with Ed Jovanovski still sidelined and the Blue Jackets acquiring a guy who can find twine to relieve pressure from Rick Nash, RJ Umberger and rookie Matt Calvert.

Before closing, Niclas Bergfors was packaged with Patrick Rismiller for Radek Dvorak. Guess the key piece to last year's Ilya Kovalchuk deal just didn't fit in Craig Ramsay's system. He was in the doghouse often, scratched several instances despite totaling 11 goals and 29 points. Oddly enough similar to his 13-14-27 output in Newark. So much for the talented Swede becoming an Atlanta fixture.

Lou does it again - Arnott dealt for Steckel AND 2nd-rounder

Like most everyone else I was getting impatient at hearing no word about any Devils moves before the trade deadline ended at 3 PM. Obviously some deals can still be announced for the next couple hours afterwards but you had to figure there would have been a deal in place for Jason Arnott before his meeting with GM Lou Lamoriello last night to discuss which teams he would waive his NTC for. So when no deal was announced I started to get nervous there would be no trade at all.

Then finally at around 3:20 word came down that Arnott was in fact, dealt to the Caps for David Steckel, a role player who's a faceoff dynamo and signed for the next two years at $1.1 million per. I admit I was somewhat bemused, trading player for player seemed like a lateral move at best and I was dissapointed there was no pick involved...until I got home and found out there was a pick involved - a 2nd rounder no less. Granted, the 2nd rounder isn't till 2012 but it's actually better in a way since that draft is supposed to be deeper.

When I heard the full terms of the deal I was astonished really, I figured Arnott would still fetch a 2nd rounder in spite of how underwhelming he's been lately but to get that and a nice role player signed on the cheap for the next couple years as well?! Not to mention getting a supposedly more valuable 2nd rounder, though it would have been nice to have one this year since we dealt ours to acquire Arnott from Nashville in the first place...funny how life works.

Clearly the acquisition of Steckel along with holding on to fellow UFA's Andy Greene and Johan Hedberg sent a message loud and clear that the Devils were in fact, all in for the last twenty games of the season. Amazingly the Devils may have actually gotten better this year with the trade, since Arnott was playing like a fish out of water for the last three months and Steckel should fit in nicely to the third-line center role, perhaps finally filling a John Madden -type role on the third line.

You really have to wonder what George McPhee and the Caps were thinking here, clearly they were desperate to get more offense from their center position but can Arnott give it to them? They paid a high price to find out. Heck, I'm sure Steckel himself wasn't thrilled, going on a team that's clearly in the playoffs to one that needs almost divine intervention to make it. At least he's got two more years here to win and is on a team that should appreciate his talents.

Not surprisingly (for once), the rest of the deadline came and went with only a few mid-level deals, nothing particularly earth-shattering. I suppose that's one price of the NHL's ridiculous parity, not many teams feel they're out of it but also some GM's got smart and did their dealing earlier than the last minute - although I suppose the Rangers' acquisition of Bryan McCabe and the Sabres' suprising trade for Brad Boyes all but counted as deadline day deals.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Devils' split in Florida leaves team nine back, immediate future still cloudy

Now, the waiting can begin for the Devils – at least until 3 PM tomorrow when the trade deadline passes. The team’s done all it could with its play the last few weeks (17-2-2) to discourage GM Lou Lamoriello to be a seller at the deadline, a task that Lou hasn’t had to worry about for almost two decades. Sure, the weekend could have gone better if the team didn’t give up two goals off of faceoffs Friday in a tough loss at Tampa but you can’t expect to literally win every game. And with all the close games we’ve had it’s amazing the team’s even had the record it does…it seems like every game comes down to one goal, for a team with no margin for error in its season or each individual game to only have one regulation loss in a month is remarkable.

So what happens now? Most of the players after the team’s 2-1 win against the Panthers this afternoon didn’t want the team to be broken up. Brian Rolston, among others was the strongest in his comments during the postgame interview with Steve Cangelosi when he admitted he’d be disappointed if anything happened. However, goalie Martin Brodeur was more realistic in his postgame press conference, alluding to the fact the team gave up a lot this offseason (in the Ilya Kovalchuk deal) and if they could get something back for their future – i.e. a draft pick – it would no doubt be a consideration. However, Brodeur also said he didn’t expect the nucleus of the team to change.

Given the fact Brodeur’s one of the few people outside of Lou’s office who could give an educated guess on what the GM would do, Marty’s comments seem to point to an obvious solution to the deadline dilemma…dealing Jason Arnott but nobody else. And really Arnott’s expendable since he has just four goals from December 2 on and twenty-two points on the season. Yet, his value will probably be inflated because of the lack of centermen on the trade front so if you could get a second-round pick for a guy that’s basically getting third-line minutes with limited production, it’d be more than understandable to do that move. However, dealing someone like David Clarkson or even Andy Greene (though I’m not sure we re-sign him this offseason) I don’t think would be on the table at this point.

Speaking of the Hall-of-Fame goaltender, he played his first game in three weeks this afternoon and was tested right from the hop, as the Panthers outshot the Devils 9-2 early, getting five pucks on net in the first couple minutes. It was as if the Panthers were determined to test Brodeur’s sharpness early, not to mention his movement on that sprained MCL but as usual Brodeur was up to the task. And Brodeur’s return also ensures the Devils have two veteran goalies at the top of their game as they head into the final twenty games of the season. After he held the fort, the team gradually settled down and gave a workman-like performance for most of the game with second-period goals coming from Clarkson and Rolston to give the team just enough to withstand a late Cats surge after Marty Reasoner's goal with four and a half minutes remaining.

That final, frantic minute included no fewer than three icings and irony of ironies, Arnott was on the ice for the last important faceoff of the game. During the postgame, Arnott tried to conceal his intentions as to whether he would waive his no-trade clause but admitted ‘we’ll see what teams are interested’ when he met with Lou later on, a meeting that’s probably happening as I’m typing. Owner Jeff Vanderbeek also accompanied Lou down to Florida as there are just nineteen hours left before the deadline. Honestly at first I’d forgotten it was Monday this year, usually the deadline has been on a Tuesday in the past but putting it on Monday is a bit of a welcome change given the light schedule of NHL games tomorrow night. It’s always been a bit problematic for teams to trade for players and not have them available for that night’s game, or be the trading team and wind up short of players because of guys you’ve dealt off.

Ironically there might be fewer deals than normal this year, both because of the number of teams who still have a chance to make the playoffs in each conference and also because some big deals have already been made. More and more, GM’s are agreeing with the Leafs’ Brian Burke, that it’s in your best interests to get business done early and it seems this year that business is getting a bit more staggered. All through this last month there’s been one deal one day, another couple of deals the next day. Yet there is definitely suspense around the Devils and what Lou will do. Giving up and tanking are two phrases not in Lou’s vocabulary but I don’t think dealing Arnott will fall under either category, so my prediction is that’s what will happen tomorrow.

Rangers add McCabe, Richards next???

Yesterday, the rumors of Bryan McCabe coming to Broadway finally stopped with the Rangers finally acquiring the vet blueliner from the Panthers for a bargain basement price of AHLer Tim Kennedy and a third round pick. Before we add anything on how the 35 year-old can help our power play while adding much needed experience, I am dumbfounded that Dale Tallon, who already made one crazy deal with his former club, could only get that low return for a valuable player who still had something left.

It just absolutely boggles how the Panthers can be so inept. Almost as if they're still in the past trading away Roberto Luongo for a package that included Alex Auld, who was the winning goalie in Montreal's 4-3 home win over Carolina. The lopsided trade then orchestrated by current MSG analyst Mike Keenan also featured Todd Bertuzzi, who then bolted. Oh. And they also gave away Cory Stillman for a song back to the Candy Canes and already he's dialed up the time machine in a familiar setting. Speaking of bargains, the Pens won a wild 6-5 shootout thanks to their own Back To The Future character with Alex Kovalev wiring one past rookie James Reimer in Toronto. A conditional seventh round pick which potentially could turn to a sixth was all he could muster for desperate Ottawa, who wanted him gone.

I guess that makes a pair of teams who will do anything to rebuild. Jarkko Ruutu for a sixth rounder?!?!?!?!?! As much as I hate him, that was an absolute steal for Anaheim, who are locked in a ridiculous playoff chase that includes the Stars, who have been without Brad Richards a couple of weeks. The potential free agent just started skating as he recovers from a concussion. Will he stay or will he go? If I'm the Stars, obviously I don't want to lose such a great player for nothing due to question marks with ownership. Supposedly, that's going to get resolved at some point. The question is with less than 48 hours until Monday's 3 PM deadline, how does it impact the Stars, who have reeled off their last two to hang in a steeple chase of West clubs that even includes the red hot Jackets, who won again Friday.

It's extremely hard to document the West race when so many teams are bunched up with as many as 13 teams still in the hunt, including the defending champion Blackhawks on the outside a point behind. If the season ended today, Dallas would make it with their 72 points good for seventh while the unbelievable Flames would squeak in with 71. The Hawks and Preds each have 70 while the Ducks and Wild are tied with 69 with Columbus at 68 and the Blues creeping in with 65. Would the Avs like a do over on that Erik Johnson trade? Good God.

If you're the Stars, getting in the playoffs should be priority. That's a team that if they make it could be a tough out as long as Kari Lehtonen plays like he's capable of. Plus Jamie Benn is finally back healthy and doing his thing. There's also Mike Ribeiro, the vastly overlooked Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow and Jamie Langenbrunner. If Alex Goligoski fits in on a blueline that features vet Stephane Robidas and one of my faves Trevor Daley, who says Dallas can't be a sleeper? However, it all depends on what they do with B-Rad, who's been as much an MVP on any team. Enough can't be said about Mr. Richards' production before he went down that had him pacing the club in points (65), assists (39), power play points (25) and shots on goal (215) despite missing the past six counting Saturday's big win over Nashville. You simply can't replace that type of production along with the leadership the former Conn Smythe winner provides.

Are the Stars really prepared to sell their best player, who loves the area and the fans want more than anything to re-sign? It has a similar feel to Cliff Lee, who bolted Texas and dissed the Yankees for the Phillies. Will it be another bitter conclusion for Texas sports fans?

While Dallas must concern themselves with that dilemma, the Rangers who bolstered their back end for essentially zilch, can turn their attention to Richards. Rumors have circulated that Glen Sather is working the phones in an attempt to deliver the hot commodity to former Lightning Cup coach John Tortorella. While it would be great to bring Richards in, two questions that must be asked:

1.At what cost? If it means Derek Stepan, Mike Del Zotto and say Evgeny Grachev, pass. But if Sather can get them to take Artem Anisimov, Matt Gilroy and another prospect or No.1 pick package, great. With McCabe's $4.5 million salary on the cap, the Rangers must clear room to make such a blockbuster transaction. Is B-Rad merely a rental because if he is, they should stand their ground with July 1 around the bend.

2.Does anyone know when Marian Gaborik will return? He's been a colossal disappointment following a 42-goal, career best 86-point debut season in the Big Apple. Concussions are nothing to mess with. So, if that means holding him out the rest of the year, so be it. Look no further than what's going on with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, who still hasn't returned since being concussed by the combo of David Steckel and Victor Hedman.

These are the questions Sather and his brass must answer before making such a risky move when Richards can walk free. The intriguing aspect is both organizations are faced with tough propositions as neither is a playoff lock. The Rangers bolstered their chances by stringing together consecutive wins, including an impressive 6-0 domination of the Caps with Erik Christensen amassing a career best four points and Brian Boyle notching his team-leading 20th goal while D-Step added his 17th.

With McCabe in and Marc Staal not returning tomorrow for Ranger Kryptonite, Tampa Bay in one of those dreaded Sunday matinees, evolving rookie tandem Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer must continue to step up while savvy vet Steve Eminger stays in with McCabe arriving and Del Zotto going down to Connecticut. The Rangers also hope Ruslan Fedotenko is healthy enough to play after leaving in his first game back, possibly re-injuring the same shoulder he separated.

While the team will have its hands full with the first place Lightning who finally halted the Devil win streak at eight, it won't be easy to win three straight against a team they haven't beaten all year- entering 0-1-2. This is the last game before the deadline, which could loom large. Are they all in? Let the chips fall where they may.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Weekend of decisions for the Devils

As the NHL trade deadline looms just days away, teams have already made deals in the weeks and days leading up to the deadline with the Panthers' Cory Stillman being the latest to change residences - again, as he gets traded back to Carolina - again. Other teams will continue to wait till the last minute and the Devils are one of those teams, with good reason.

Currently sitting on the edge of the playoff race nine points back of those eighth seeded Hurricanes, everyone in the Devils' locker room knows that a good weekend in Florida (with games against Tampa tomorrow night and the Panthers Sunday) will encourage GM Lou Lamoriello to stand pat, or even perhaps make some small addition. Alternately, a couple of losses and unfavorable results from the out-of-town scoreboard could lead to multiple Devil UFA's getting shipped out, including center Jason Arnott and perhaps even defenseman Andy Greene and goaltender Johan Hedberg. Arnott, in particular will have to decide whether to waive his no-trade clause or even request a deal himself to a contender higher up in the standings.

While it seems a lot of pressure to put on one weekend, each game for the Devils has had a Game 7-like urgency to it for a while now. Though we don't neccesarily need another 16-1-2 stretch in our last 22 games to make the postseason, it probably will take something very close to that kind of pace (if 91 points are neccesary, it'll take a 17-4-1 run to get to 91). A pace the team will surely not maintain if they become sellers at the deadline. So after a desultory performance Tuesday in Dallas led to an unhappy Jacques Lemaire, it appears as if the team's re-focused now according to the latest reports from practice.

Speaking of Hedberg, that leads to the other major decision facing the Devils in the next few games...what to do about HOF'er-to-be Martin Brodeur? He will be sitting out his fourth straight game in favor of Hedberg (who hasn't lost in regulation since early January) since coming off of IR last Friday. As has been the case for almost all of Brodeur's career, he's handled a potentially sticky situation with class - this despite the fact that Brodeur was also playing well again before he got hurt in Montreal a couple of weeks ago.

“He’s been playing unbelievable and it’s only fair for the team if there’s a guy that’s playing really well,” Brodeur said. “Unfortunately I got hurt. It happens. Lou (Lamoriello) brought him in for a reason and it’s paying dividends right now the way he’s been playing. I’ll get back in the net eventually and we’ll just continue with what Jacques (Lemaire) has been doing.”

As odd as it is to see Brodeur on the bench for meaningful games, Lemaire's making the right call here - you have to keep Hedberg in for as hot as he's been (eight straight wins since Brodeur got hurt, one goal allowed in his last three starts). Of course it'll be interesting to see what happens when Hedberg finally loses a game and what the goalie rotation becomes, or when Brodeur will get the call next if Hedberg does keep winning for a few games. One thing is for sure though, with Brodeur having rounded back into form in January and Hedberg being as hot as any goalie in the league in February, who's actually in goal is the least of our concerns.

What should be the biggest of our concerns right now is a Tampa team that is still in first place ahead of the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals in the Southwest and roasted the Coyotes (winners of eight straight) 8-3 last night. Granted, our third-period comeback against Tampa in early January started this roll and we roasted them in Florida a few nights later but you can't ever overlook a team with the likes of Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier. And with the trade deadline just days away, the focus should be clear. The next goals are to get to the deadline with the team intact, and eventually get to .500 - currently we're only four under, an astounding total from the nineteen under we were before that aformentioned Tampa comeback. If those two things happen soon, the playoffs will become a very realistic goal.

Deadline deals a plenty

If you're a sportsfan, this is an exciting time of year. The NBA deadline has already produced two big superstars coming to the metropolitan area with the Knicks finally acquiring Carmelo Anthony and the Nets stunning everyone by bringing in Deron Williams. While those two main attractions overshadow what's going on with our hockey clubs, the rest of the NHL has been plenty busy with quite a few big names also changing logos.

By now, we already know that Tomas Kaberle finally was traded out of Toronto after the 1,234,567th rumor with the much discussed offensive defenseman becoming a Boston Bruin last week for prospect Joe Colborne, a first round pick and a conditional pick. So, the 12-year veteran who lasted much longer as a Leaf than anyone ever imagined a decade prior when he was rumored along with Nik Antropov to the Flyers for Eric Lindros- now goes to Beantown to try to help deliver Lord Stanley back to the home of New England Clam Chowder for the first time since Bobby Orr skated the Cup in front of my Dad at the Garden in '72.

If only that were the only trade. The biggest one and most shocking in a long time was over the weekend when the Avs and Blues got together with Colorado sending power forward Chris Stewart and rookie blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement. The blockbuster that wasn't announced until past 2 AM on the East coast Saturday morning on Twitter also included a first round pick to the Avs while the Blues got a second rounder with both conditional either this year or next. The deal stunned the hockey world. When a former first overall pick is dealt for an emerging star and an offensive defenseman having a good rookie year, it's no small potatoes. Already, the teams met with Johnson's late goal holding off his former club 4-3. The former cornerstone who was instrumental in Team USA's silver medal at last year's Olympics has already vowed to make Blues' GM Doug Armstrong regret the trade. Even more wild was former Quebec Nordique all-time great Hall Of Famer Peter Stastny ripping into the Avs for doing this deal. When interviewed live during a Colorado loss to Edmonton last night, Paul Stastny's Dad didn't mince words saying:

"That's a one-sided deal. I don't know what they're doing. I'm really mad. ... They set the team back two, three years. I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't say this but that's how I feel."

Strong stuff from a great player who obviously still cares a great deal about the franchise his son still is part of until he's next. On paper, it does seem to favor St. Louis. Especially if Stewart develops into the 30+ goal, 70-point guy we expect. Shattenkirk's no throw in either with 28 points (7-21-28) in his rookie season. Or eight better than Johnson, who has faded from a career best 39 last year to 20 (4-16-20). It got even chipper last night on Versus when Keith Jones criticized the 22 year-old American, indicating that Colorado should expect to be very disappointed, which even stunned Mike Milbury, who of course got blamed even when he didn't run his mouth. It's hard not to think it's better for the Blues but wasn't Johnson expected to be a cornerstone defenseman you build around? Considering the state of the Av blueline, it's worth the gamble, reminding many of another player the Blues acquired in Chris Pronger from the then Hartford Whalers for Brendan Shanahan. That was two Hall Of Famers. They'll be talking about this deal for a while. Until then, let's at least remain on the sidelines before giving our verdict.

Just today, Alex Kovalev returned to Pittsburgh for a seventh round pick that could turn into a sixth depending on the number of games the talented yet enigmatic Russian plays. On his 38th birthday, AK27 gets to play for the team he had his coming out party with. Was it really that long ago that the Kovy274Hart name was born? My aol screename was inspired by a career '00-01 season in which Kovy tallied 44 goals, 51 assists, 95 points along with 12 power play goals, two shorties and nine game-winners. The same year Super Mario returned reuniting with old linemates Kevin Stevens and Jaromir Jagr while Kovalev played with Martin Straka and Robert Lang. Now, nearing the finish line of an underachieving career despite 426 career goals and 591 assists for 1,017 total points in 1,282 games, the former '94 Ranger Stanley Cup hero gets one more chance with the banged up Pens without Evgeni Malkin and probably Sidney Crosby. He'd been a bitter disappointment in Ottawa after a few productive years with Montreal. Before a recent run of nine points in 10 games including six goals post-All Star break, Kovalev had been MIA, becoming a healthy scratch. Now, the Pens hope he's got something left.

We're still waiting on other trades. Will Dallas move injured Brad Richards now that they're life and death for the playoffs? Will the Rangers acquire a veteran blueliner? Are the Devils and Islanders doing anything? All that and more shall get answered shortly.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wolski's late heroics give Rangers a boost

They needed something and fast. With another hard fought game slipping away, Wojtek Wolski came to the rescue by scoring late in regulation and notching the shootout decider in Round Three, pushing the Rangers to a big 4-3 win last night over the Hurricanes in Raleigh. The stirring finish allowed the Rangers to go from falling into a seventh place tie with Carolina holding one game in hand to being three points up with 68 points to the Canes' 65.

Good thing too cause the Devils won again cutting Carolina's lead to nine. The Leafs also got a huge win thanks to a late Phil Kessel tally over the Islanders 2-1. This unpredictable playoff race continues to intensify with anything possible. That's why it was imperative for the Rangers to get this game after dropping two straight to the Devs and Flyers. With the win, they improved to 8-7-0 without Marian Gaborik (concussion). They also pulled it out despite losing Marc Staal to an injury after he took a clean hit from brother Eric Staal, who caught his own flesh and blood with a shoulder knocking our best defenseman to the ice. He got up and went to the bench but didn't return for the third, letting doubts creep in to if his own brother concussed him. As it turned out, it was actually a knee that kept him out, which isn't expected to be serious. We'll see Friday when the Rangers play Washington before facing their Kryptonite Tampa Bay Sunday.

While we'll have an eye on Staal, enough can't be said about the character this team demonstrated after what looked like another gut wrenching loss was in the works, thanks to two Jussi Jokinen third period tallies that put Carolina ahead. The Rangers seemed to be in decent shape thanks to a late second period five-on-three power play goal (not a misprint) by Ryan Callahan, who tipped home a Mats Zuccarello point shot for their second lead of the night. After a bevy of missed infractions on the home team, the Blueshirts finally got a break when a phantom hook on Joni Pitkanen gave them the two-man advantage. Instead of working around the perimeter, they got the puck to Zuccarello at the point, who didn't hesitate finding Callahan in front for the PPG.

Lately, our team has had issues closing out games. They've lost a bunch of tight one-goal decisions lately sans a couple of empty netters. The Canes rallied thanks to Jokinen who twice burned the Rangers with his 13th and 14th goals. How a skilled, gritty player doesn't have more is mind boggling. Anyway, on the first he picked up a loose puck following a Ranger penalty kill and rifled one far side on Henrik Lundqvist, tying it. There was nothing our goalie could do as it just bounced right to him and he made no mistake, firing quickly. The second appeared more damaging with Jokinen getting to a Jay Harrison point shot in front and flipping a backhand past an outstretched Lundqvist. Again, not much he could've done as he was expecting Harrison's shot and then Jokinen in one motion took the puck and steered it home. At that exact moment, I was ready to throw my arms up because our guys had played a good game, forcing Cam Ward to stand on his head. Ward is one of the best goalies and made all kinda of acrobatic saves, imitating Mike Richter. The goalie our Devil blogger Hasan compares him to.

It looked like an effort that saw Ward come up with nearly 40 saves before overtime would doom us. Instead, Wolski combined with Ryan McDonagh for a sweet goal tying it with 1:50 to go. All night, he and linemates Zuccarello and Derek Stepan had been our best line, generating chances off the forecheck. They particularly buzzed a prior shift with Stepan coming close. This time, Wolski got the puck from McDonagh, who played an oustanding game along with Mike Sauer- and went around a Hurricane and then centered a pass for a wide open Sauer at the doorstep which banked in off a Carolina player. If the puck had come to Sauer, he probably puts it home anyway unless Ward does the unthinkable. Considering how he played, maybe it's good it never got to that.

The overtime was one of the best you'll see without someone scoring. Both goalies were superb as they had been. Lundqvist finished with 30 stops and Ward 43. When nothing was decided, it went to a shootout. In it, the two netminders controlled things with each equal to the task. Though Ward a bit more impressive stoning shootout ace Erik Christensen on a tough deke and then forcing Zuccarello wide on another forehand attempt. Lundqvist stayed with Canes' ace Jokinen getting a piece of his backhand deke after thwarting rookie Jeff Skinner. The Canes sent our former Calder winner Sergei Samsonov but Henrik shut the door on the crafty Russian's five-hole attempt, setting the stage for Wolski. Before the skill competition, he sought advice from loquacious backup Martin Biron. A man who has a future in broadcasting must've said the right thing because the move Wolski made was sheer genius. Looking as if he was going to go wide like our first two shooters, Wolski surprised Ward with a quick shot high glove, giving an excited Ranger club its third win in five.

"I was happy to be put in that position, and even more excited that we won,” the late hero said.

“Everybody felt we could come back, and it was nice to finally get that bounce in the third period,” Callahan pointed out after netting his 16th goal. “It’s good for our morale and it shows character to stick with the game plan.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Another moose egg keeps' Devils' win streak intact

I can't say tonight's 1-0 win in Dallas was the most scintilating of our last nineteen games (of which we're now 16-1-2) but thanks to the heroics of Johan Hedberg we managed to get two more crucial points, putting us within four games of .500 and nine points of a playoff spot after the Canes' SO loss to the Rangers. Even in an ugly win, the Devils managed to continue some impressive streaks...for the team, their eighth win in a row. For Hedberg, his longest-ever winning streak and for Ilya Kovalchuk, the longest point-scoring streak of his career as he got an assist on Nick Palmeri's late third-period power play goal that decided the issue.

Despite the two points, coach Jacques Lemaire could barely conceal his disdain all day - and with good reason as it turned out. He ended a pregame skate prematurely and threatened lineup changes because of a bad couple of days of practice, and during the game it was all he could do to not yell at the players on the bench while being interviewed by Brian Engblom during the second period. Not to mention according to Engblom, Lemaire was still hopping mad after the second period and going hoarse from yelling at the team.

Sure you expect off nights from here and there under normal circumstances but this is far from a normal situation. With our precarious playoff position (the next two games are still critical for maintaining momentum before the trade deadline) the team really can't afford to give away games. And if it wasn't for Hedberg - and a mediocre Stars team - they probably would have given away at least one, if not two points tonight. As a good coach you need to stop complacency before it starts and Lemaire understands the desperation of the situation we're in better than anyone.

Although Hedberg was the clear first star of the game, he got an assist on the goalline from defenseman Anton Volchenkov late in the second period when he stopped a puck with his knee in the crease. And if one thing worked for us today, it was the penalty kill, especially killing off a double minor from Patrik Elias midway through the second without so much as allowing a shot on net. In spite of our good penalty killing, most of the rest of the game was sloppiness and inefficiency personified. Ironically, it was Palmeri who probably had the worst miss of the game in the second period when Kovy drew two defensemen toward him and dished it off to a wide-open Palmeri but the rookie shot it wide of the net with Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen way out of his net to challenge the shot.

Still, the game dragged on without much in terms of excitement but plenty of suspense, but when it looked like both teams would start playing for the point and get to overtime the Devils won a couple of power play chances in the third period and finally capitalized on one of them through a broken play...or rather, a broken stick. Kovy tried to rip one of his patented slapshots toward the net but his stick snapped, perhaps making his shot more deflectable by Palmeri in front for a tip-in goal, as well as causing a distraction to Lehtonen with just 5:37 left in the game. Palmeri's sixth goal of the season proved to be the only goal the Devils needed as Hedberg's nineteen saves was enough to give the moose his second shutout in three games, as well as his seventh straight win.

Predictably the Rangers-Canes game turned out to be a three-point affair but in spite of that inconvenience the Devils pulled one more point closer to a playoff berth, now sitting nine points back just a month and a half after being 27 back, with a game in hand against the Canes as well. Of course our improving position isn't going to matter much if the team doesn't shake off the complacency it's shown the last three days.

Game Preview: Rangers clash with Hurricanes in crucial battle

It's slowly slipping away from their grasp. With every gut wrenching loss, the Rangers are making it more difficult on themselves to erase last year's bitter memory in Philadelphia. Having dropped another tough game to their Kryptonite by a 4-2 count with Kris Versteeg's late empty netter like a kick to the groin, the Blueshirts hold seventh place in the conference by two points over their next opponent tonight in Raleigh. The Hurricanes also aren't playing great either, having been unable to solve the Devils- losing a third straight time in humiliating fashion 4-1 a night removed from retiring former Cup-winning captain Rod BrindAmour's jersey.

Cam Ward makes his 20th consecutive start opposed by the opposite No.30, Henrik Lundqvist who is in a fourth time in seven days. Last time out, the close clubs played a superb game in which each All-Star netminder shined with Lundqvist able to pull it out 2-1 in overtime at MSG. A game Carolina coach Paul Maurice labeled "the best goaltended game this year." None of that matters when their teams do battle again in what amounts to a crucial contest with playoff positioning on the line. The Rangers don't want to lose three in a row because if they do, the Canes tie them in points (66) and would be seventh due to one fewer game played. It also keeps ninth Buffalo around the corner who trail by half a dozen while stumbling Atlanta, Toronto, Florida and the hot Devils and Islanders hang around.

The way things have gone, it's not far fetched for the Devils and Islanders to creep up even closer and make the most improbable playoff runs a reality. With over 20 games still left and a majority of teams above them struggling including our club, anything's possible.

With Marian Gaborik mysteriously leaving Sunday's game after the first due to a concussion they never noticed in previous contests, it forces the Rangers to once again summon up all the mental strength they have to win in the face of adversity. Something this team has done well- going .500 (7-7-0) without Gabby who's largely been MIA anyway. Brandon Dubinsky criticized himself following Sunday and expects better. He leads us in goals (20), assists (24), points (44), shorthanded goals (2) and shooting percentage (13.4). It's up to others to follow his and Ryan Callahan's (15-15-30 in 41 GP) lead. Everyone must step up including kids Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov- both of whose production have suffered in the second half despite decent efforts.

There's always Brian Boyle of the career best 19 goals, 29 points and four power play goals who can chip in. Tonight, the jack of all trades is separated from banged up sidekick Brandon Prust who will play on a fourth line with Sean Avery and Connecticut recall Kris Newbury. Boyle will play with shootout ace Erik Christensen and Vinny Prospal. There's no real finisher here unless Boyle uses his size. Both Christy and Prosp are set up guys. That's the hope here. Meanwhile, Tort will keep his top two lines intact with D-Step teaming with Norwegian rookie Mats Zuccarello and Wojtek Wolski while Dubinsky, Anisimov and Callahan comprise the other line.

It's now or never for our young nucleus which might be getting a slight overhaul if the Bryan McCabe rumors to Broadway for possibly Matt Gilroy and a second round pick are true. Don't forget that last time there were Rangers/Panthers rumors, it involved Dan Girardi and Dubinsky with Stephen Weiss. Thankfully, it wasn't true. While the 35 year-old vet McCabe can help us on the powerless play, what's the point? This club isn't winning anything. I'd rather see Gilroy finally get a real shot to run the point instead of having Tort roll out Del Zotto over and over again. It's my belief that Hobey has been treated unfairly. Why is it only okay for the coach to give rooks Mike Sauer and Ryan McDonagh the second pair and not Gilroy, who at least shows assertiveness on the rush?

It's time for the coach to wake up before his team fails in its bid for the postseason, putting his job in jeopardy. A tough week which starts tonight with a trip to D.C. Friday and another Kryptonite Tampa Bay in town Sunday- will help determine if this club should buy or sell at the 2/28 Deadline.

An Islander Revival

Much has been made of the Devils' ridiculous splash back into postseason discussion. Their 15-1-2 record is an amazing turnaround for a team that won only 10 of its first 39. While that story continues to unfold with New Jersey visiting Dallas and former captain Jamie Langenbrunner tonight, another rejuvanted team is flying under the radar.

At one point, the New York Islanders dropped 20 of 21 (1-17-3) leading to Jack Capuano taking over behind the bench. It took a while for him to get his first win but eventually, the new coach got his young team to buy in. Believe it or not, the Islanders off yesterday's latest win- a 5-1 domination of the Panthers at Nassau Coliseum in which Matt Moulson notched a hat trick to surge ahead of rookie Michael Grabner for the club lead in goals with 26- this more confident bunch who won their sixth in seven trail eighth Carolina by 11 points entering tonight's game against Toronto. Another team ahead of them in this wild goose chase that includes the Devils, who are one up on the guys from Long Island. Oh. Did we mention that eighth Carolina hosts the seventh ranked Rangers in an all important battle? A Hurricane regulation win ties them for seventh. So, are the Devils and Islanders actually pulling for their bitter rival to snap out of it for just a night?

While that can be debated in sports bars or on Twitter, both clubs have more business to take care of. For the Islanders, who enter having won eight of 11 and are 18-12-2 since that mid-December swoon that threatened their season, they should be fairly confident when Capuano's healthier club takes on the Maple Leafs with a chance to get within two of another team in the hunt for April.

Can former Ranger '04 No.1 pick Al Montoya continue writing his own personal chapter in his third consecutive start with bright Leafs' rookie James Reimer opposing? The 26 year-old Montoya's story is well chronicled with the Cuban American never getting the chance to even start one game for the team who drafted him over in Manhattan where Henrik Lundqvist blocked his path. It's also conveniently forgotten that Montoya wasn't a total scrub, making Planet USA in his second AHL season for the former Hartford Wolf Pack (now Connecticut Whale). But there never was a spot for him with the Rangers using vet Steve Valiquette and then Alex Auld last year. Montoya was eventually dealt to Phoenix where he in one brief cameo, he showed what he could do pitching a shutout and posting a 3-1-0 record with a 2.08 GAA and .925 save percentage in five games- four of which were starts two years ago. The former University of Michigan standout was blocked yet again by the healthy return of Vezina runner-up Ilya Bryzgalov. Ironically, former Ranger property Jason LaBarbera is the backup. Go figure. So, Montoya was shipped to Long Island for one more opportunity. One he hopes to make the most of.

People want to knock us down every day, from what I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” the '04 WJC USA hero said after turning aside 20 of 21 in yesterday's win to improve to 3-0-0 with a 1.23 GAA and a .953 save percentage entering tonight. “You want to play that underdog role. You go out there and play hard and show the rest of the league what you can do.
In an unpredictable year where anything's possible, why not? Who saw the Devils reversing course under Jacques Lemaire playing lights out hockey with no real No.1 caliber D and Johan Hedberg starring over Martin Brodeur minus Zach Parise? In the Islanders, here you have an even better story because it's a younger nucleus coming together and producing three 20-goal scorers with Moulson (26) and surprising Grabner (25) leading the way with John Tavares (23) right behind. Coincidentally, the run has come since Kyle Okposo returned with the former club No.1 pick going 2-7-9 plus-five in 16 games thus far. Speaking of great stories, there's well traveled journeyman P.A. Parenteau finally getting his chance in the bigs and making the most of it with the ex-Ranger third in team scoring with 38 points (14-24-38), already re-signed for next year.

On defense, Travis Hamonic is poised beyond his years playing the kind of solid hockey that has Islander fans excited about the club's future. Already logging important minutes, the 20 year-old from Manitoba has two goals and 15 helpers while resembling the player the team can trust on a revamped blueline that eventually will feature Calvin de haan. Hamonic's play is eerily similar to that of Mark Fayne, who arguably is the best Devil defenseman during their improbable run. Could it really be true that a pair of rookies have been instrumental in each of their teams' turnarounds? Pretty exciting stuff for both Battle clubs.

And while Mike Del Zotto baffles in Year Two on Broadway, the same cannot be said of freshmen tandem Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer, who've become John Tortorella's second pair. The theme on all three is they're young and learning the ropes on the fly.

Can the Islanders continue their rise back into the race against a Toronto team that boasts one of the hottest lines in hockey in dangerous trio Nikolai Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski-Clarke MacArthur? There's also streaky Phil Kessel who's caught fire with his name bandied about a year after coming to be Brian Burke's building block. It shouldn't be easy. But at this point, nothing has fazed Coach Capuano's together team who wants to prove everyone wrong, earning respect. The way they're playing, don't doubt them for a second.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Devils sweep weekend, three-game series with Canes to pull within ten

Okay it’s getting hard not to get carried away now. As much as I’ve been enjoying this run back to respectability, in the back of my mind I’ve been a cynic about our playoff chances. Last night’s game and where it fell on the schedule was one reason why, we usually lose when we go to Carolina and we almost always go to Carolina the night after a home game. Look at the game after Martin Brodeur broke the wins record at home, the Devils had to go to Carolina the next night and got wasted. Or earlier this year for that matter, when the Devils got a rare first-half win over the Thrashers then got smoked in Raleigh on New Year’s Day. A regulation loss last night would have all but ended the playoff chase, putting the Devils fourteen points back of Carolina with 23 games remaining.

Instead, the Devils pounded the Canes for their third win over Carolina in eight days in such convincing fashion you almost have to believe anything’s possible, even probable at this point. Hey, we were unbelievably bad in the first half – why not be unbelievably good in the second half? It’d fit in with this already crazy season. We’ve gone from 27 points back to 10 in record time, from nineteen games under .500 to just five under in the span of five weeks. My unofficial benchmarks for getting back in the playoff race were have a ten-game winning streak and get to .500. Well, our current winning streak is at seven and this overall stretch is an insane 15-1-2, I’d have to say we’re back into it now, despite the sobering realization that if the season ended today we’d still have the 4th overall pick because of our bad first half.

Not only are the Devils making their own fans believers (judging by the amount of people wearing Believe-NJ t-shirts last night at Miami Mike’s viewing party), but they’re making the rest of the league believers too. You have to believe the Canes are hearing footsteps after losing five points to the Devils in three head-to-head matchups and after beating the Rangers in a taut 1-0 game Friday they’ve made New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist a believer too.

“They’re in the race,” Lundqvist said. “It’s unbelievable, but they’re in the race.”

That encapsules this insanity very nicely. It’s to the point where the Devils are no longer automatically going to be selling assets at the deadline, I would say they could even become buyers except quite honestly why would you change anything on a team that’s gotten points in 17 of their last 18 games, in the process winning a boatload of one-goal games and all sorts of games they had no business winning (like last Friday’s game against the Sharks, a seventh game in eleven days)?

For three straight games before last night ex-Thrasher teammates Ilya Kovalchuk and Johan Hedberg monopolized the #1 and #2 stars and you have to say both are leading the charge right now, unlikely as it is for different reasons. In Hedberg’s case he’s been on such a hot streak he’s even relegated Brodeur to the bench in the last couple of games since the HOF’er to be came off of IR though it would be nice if Brodeur gets in another practice or two before coming back, and you could definitely throw him in Tuesday against a non-conference team. That said, you don’t want to stall Hedberg’s momentum by having him sit five days either.

As far as Kovy though, he has come out of the wilderness and is again one of the most dynamic players in hockey, only with a new awareness of other aspects of the game. A play early in Friday’s game really impressed me, when Henrik Tallinder flipped a puck toward the boards and it looked like it was going out for a delay of game penalty, Kovy deflected the puck with a high stick to cancel out the penalty. Even Carolina announcer Tripp Tracy admitted Kovy had become a ‘three zone’ player. Clearly the biggest reason for this is Jacques Lemaire, and Kovy’s reverence toward him. Honestly, it’s rare these days to see a star player show such respect to any coach though you can understand why, Lemaire was a HOF player and has coached for a long time, if anyone could untap all of Kovy’s potential it’s Jacques and he’s been doing it in the second half of the season.

And I have to vehemently disagree with Derek’s assessment that the Devils are again boring, yes they’re playing a surprisingly sound defensive system now (Hedberg called Friday’s effort the best defense he’s ever seen from a team in front of him) but honestly the only reason Friday’s game was even close was Lundqvist, who made his usual assortment of spectacular saves against us - only allowing an equally spectacular breakaway goal by Kovy. Wednesday’s game should have been more of a blowout than 3-2, we gave up a couple of late goals to make it artificially close and last night was also no contest territorially. For all of our one-goal wins lately, the Devils had a really dominant week. And the week before the Devils came back to win three straight games, also not indiciative with the get ahead, stay ahead mode of the ‘trap system’.

Certainly the hype before Tuesday’s game won’t be boring, not that playing Dallas is quite as critical as the Cane and Ranger games were this week since it’s not a four-point game against a team we’re chasing, but it offers a different kind of twist as former captain Jamie Langenbrunner faces his ex-team for the first time since his exile. You do wonder what he’s thinking, seeing the Devils win game after game with Lemaire and without him while Dallas has struggled big-time over this last month, going from Pacific leaders to potentially out of the playoffs entirely?

Still, the hype about what Jamie’s departure meant to the team will take a back seat to potentially getting to within single digits of the playoff chase by Tuesday night and every game remains important. Realistically the Devils still have to go 18-5 to get to 92 points, which could all but assure a playoff spot. Hopefully a couple of the teams in front of us fall back more and the target number gets even less but either way it’s fun to watch a team that has to play every game like it’s a Game 7, you don’t worry about the team having an off night or taking a team lightly, after our start we can’t afford to.

Either way, I’m starting to believe this could be more than a chase just to get back to and above .500.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ranger effort simply not good enough in loss to hot Hudson rival

Okay. So last night's latest installment of the Battle Of Hudson wasn't a work of art. With all due respect to Hall Of Fame coach Jacques Lemaire, there's nothing beautiful about the agitating style his teams employ. The neutral zone trap or 1-2-2 or 1-4 is what it is. It forces undisciplined opponents into mistakes. The defensive team is then opportunistic enough to pounce on those errors like the red hot Devils did during Friday's 1-0 blanking of a Ranger team that simply wasn't good enough.

Like future captain Ryan Callahan noted in the postgame, it didn't matter if they were tired from the night before of what amounted to a hard fought win over a good LA team. The schedule is what it is with the Rangers having more back-to-backs than anyone else. For the most part, they've fared well showing the trademark resiliency that's made them rootable for Garden Faithful. Even if the Devils are making a frantic second half push for the final playoff berth occupied by Carolina who still sits 12 points up with the final meeting of the season tonight in Raleigh, John Tortorella's club had to be better yesterday.

Fifteen shots just won't cut it. Credit must be handed out to New Jersey for staying so focused on the defensive side by doing the little things that win in this league. Even if it makes you want to nap, they executed Lemaire's strategy to perfection. Johan Hedberg went out of his way to praise the defensive effort, referring to it as the best he's ever seen. But what would the latest Devil win be without rejuvenated megabucks star Ilya Kovalchuk victimizing Marc Staal, who fell at the blueline- allowing the red hot Russian to go in on a breakaway and rifle a laser off the far post past Henrik Lundqvist for the winner halfway through the tactical contest.

The problem for the Blueshirts wasn't so much that the Devils dictated every inch of the ice but more about how much they gave. Until the third, there was nothing to write about. They got outhit, outhustled and outworked for a second straight time against the close Hudson rival. Sure. They were better in the third with Tortorella shuffling his lines featuring Sean Avery a bit more effective with Marian Gaborik and Erik Christensen. But it still wasn't enough.

When they face a team they haven't beat yet since last year in the top seeded Flyers, there can't be any excuses. They're only two up on Carolina with Atlanta, Buffalo, Toronto and the Devils hanging around. It won't get any easier with a visit to Raleigh Tuesday and another tough game next Thursday. It's time for them to step up!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Twenty-eight hours of tension

Heading into these next two crucial games against the Rangers here and the Hurricanes in Carolina tomorrow night, the Devils remain the hottest team in the league during the second half of the season with a 13-1-2 record. Yet, because of how bad their first half was the Devils' season is basically hanging in the balance over these next twenty-eight hours. Why? Well we're twelve points out of eighth place currently, and the Hurricanes currently hold the eighth seed. Before playing us tomorrow they play the league-leading Flyers at home tonight. While the Rangers are still a bit above the eighth seed morass we do have a game in hand and can go some way toward dragging them back into the muck with a win tonight.

Two wins and other results going our way (Flyers over Canes in regulation) could leave us an unreal eight points out by Saturday night. Two losses, on the other hand could leave us as many as sixteen back and provide a fatal blow to our still slim chances of making the playoffs. Realistically at least the Devils should know either way which direction they're headed by the time the trade deadline arrives in a week and a half - though from all of today's activity you would have thought today was the deadline. Good heavens, even Tomas Kaberle finally got moved and our long international nightmare has finally ended...will wonders never cease?

A sign I saw at Wednesday's game against the Hurricanes said it all...'One shift at a time, one period at a time, one game at a time, WE BELIEVE!'. Certainly Patrik Elias believes, at least in our chances tonight. He all but guaranteed a win over the Rangers during his postgame interview with Steve Cangelosi at center ice after the Devils' exciting 3-2 win gave them their second straight over Carolina in the last two weeks. Believe me, a few weeks ago I wouldn't have thought I'd be regretting being on the sidelines tonight, letting my friend buy my tickets for this game. Although it seems as if the only times we ever beat the Rangers anymore are when I'm not in attendance. As luck would have it, I won't be at the Rock but supposedly Derek will be there for his first trip so I'm sure he'll have some must-read observations later.

Ironically I will be enjoying tomorrow's game out, at a viewing party. I've only been to one Devils viewing party before and that was earlier this season at the same place (Miami Mike's) off Route 10. While we lost - as was commonplace in the first half - I won big that night, scoring club seats to the next night's game against Detroit, an autographed Elias and Travis Zajac picture as well as an autographed Bruce Driver puck. The latter two prizes came in a raffle after I made a small $10 donation to David Clarkson's Clarky's kids charity. So guess I'll try my luck tomorrow again but I'll defer any other winnings in exchange for some more wins between now and March, when I'll be at the Rock next.

At least reinforcements have arrived in the person of Martin Brodeur, who was taken off IR and will be available to back up Johan Hedberg tonight. It's possible Brodeur will start tomorrow's game in Carolina. Yes Hedberg's been playing very well this month but it's always nice to have a Hall of Fame goaltender back, especially considering that both have made a good tandem in this second half of the season. Not to mention both goalies are 38 years old so it'd be nice to keep each one fresh as we go down the home stretch.

And the Devils will receive another critical addition to their lineup with the return of defenseman Anton Volchenkov from his three-game suspension tonight against the Rangers, re-exiling the shaky Mark Fraser to the press box. Also in the news, teen center Jacob Josefson has been recalled from Albany and while he won't play tonight looks to be in the plans for the team going foward since Tim Sestito was sent down yesterday, opening up a spot at center.

Whatever happens I'll be back on Sunday with thoughts on either a possible miracle in the making or the end of a brilliant run that - if nothing else - has proved that the first half was the fluke and this Devils team was actually what we thought they were going into the season.

MZA shootout theatrics topple Kings

Just call him the Magician. I've run out of adjectives to describe Rangers' shootout ace Mats Zuccarello, whose latest theatrics helped the Blueshirts topple a hot Kings team 4-3 at an energized Garden last night. In a very entertaining game full of twists and turns, the Rangers had their ace in a hole who ensured a vital second consecutive win with another fantastic move in the shootout- putting some distance between the seventh seeded club on Broadway and the chase for eighth that now includes their next sizzling opponent tonight in Newark, the Devils.

The Rangers came back from a goal down to take the lead twice but a pesky LA club led by USA Olympian Dustin Brown wouldn't go away with the Kings' captain forcing overtime on the craziest of bounces with under three minutes left. While I've seen other bloggers unfairly blame Henrik Lundqvist for Brown's odd equalizer off a carom and LA defenseman Matt Greene's first which Sean Avery screened his own goalie on, give it a rest. Sure, the King faced nine fewer shots than promising rookie Jonathan Bernier. However, on a night he won his 200th career NHL game by once again stymieing stiff competition to preserve the 'W,' it was his stellar play in the first that gave the Rangers a chance.

After a decent start that saw them earn a power play following a strong kill led by Lundqvist, the Rangers fell into a lull- allowing a tough LA club to take control. Despite missing a couple of opportunities on the man-advantage, Lundqvist still had to deal with a two-on-one shorthanded bid with Anze Kopitar working a give-and-go before being perfectly set up for what seemed like a gimme, only to see King Henrik slide across and make an acrobatic stop doing the splits. They were already trailing by one thanks to Brown's first of two on the power play with Brandon Dubinsky in the box. Our PK had a mix up in coverage allowing Jack Johnson and Justin Williams to easily find a wide open Brown in the slot for his 19th.
In a period largely controlled by LA's forecheck, only Lundqvist kept them from extending the lead.

Not surprisingly, the Rangers heard a smattering of boos. Maybe it inspired them because they were a different team in the second. As usual, future captain Ryan Callahan was involved. Having almost pulled off a great individual effort for a near tally, the glue of our gritty team came through thanks to a one-handed attempt by bright rookie Derek Stepan. Off an Artem Anisimov faceoff win, Stepan took the puck hard to the net and got off a tough shot which Bernier kicked out right to Callahan, who deposited his 15th to loud cheers. If not for an injury that kept him out most of last month, he'd have 20 goals and be on target for his first 30-goal campaign. Not bad for the '04 fourth round steal from Rochester. Is it a tad ironic that he hails from the same area as current Montreal captain and ex-Devil Cup winner Brian Gionta? I think not.

Following Callahan's 15th, the Rangers really carried the play using a strong forecheck to pin the Kings deep. They generated several scoring chances including a couple of close calls which Bernier was able to snuff out. Though he's the understudy to Vezina candidate Jon Quick, you can see why he was a first round selection back in '06. Only 22, Bernier definitely has a bright future in Hollywood- giving Los Angeles arguably the strongest goalie tandem in the league with our duo of Lundqvist and vet Martin Biron right behind.

With the game tied at one after 40 minutes, it felt like the next goal would win. Something I remarked to Bob in my section. On this night, I couldn't have been more wrong as it got wild and wacky the rest of the way. It started when Marian Gaborik ended his scoring drought by taking a Mike Sauer outlet and using Drew Doughty as a screen for a knuckler reminiscent of The Mighty Ducks II. Gabby's Knuckle Puck floated past Bernier putting us ahead at 6:10. Before we could get settled and believe me, plenty of Garden Faithful were pumped- the Kings came right back 1:40 later when Greene of all people tied it thanks to some solid work from Kopitar and Brad Richardson. A Ranger turnover at the LA blueline didn't allow our team to change. The Kings wisely got the puck in and Kopitar and Richardson set up Greene, whose routine slapper hopped off one of our players past Lundqvist. It didn't help that Avery dove in front which probably obstructed Lundqvist's view. Naturally, it was Greene's first. A Ranger specialty. :P

Both teams played to win, forcing the goalies to make big saves. It seemed destined for overtime until Dubinsky got a step on LA's D and snuck a wraparound which must've gone off Anisimov because they later changed what would've been Dubi's 20th to Artie's 13th. Callahan also assisted giving him a two-point night. In 39 games this season, he is 15-15-30. With an assist, Dubinsky's 19-24-43 over 54. Those have been our best players. Two home grown kids who continue to evolve.

It looked like the Rangers would hold on until an odd Rob Scuderi wide shot caromed off the back boards right to Brown, who banked the puck off Lundqvist's head for his 20th. The bizarre play also had Anisimov fall down behind the net which allowed Brown to get free.

So after all that, the game went to OT where our team blew a golden opportunity to win it after LA waste Alexei Ponikarovsky took a double minor for hi-sticking at the end of regulation. In typical fashion, our guys couldn't get anything done with the Kings aided by Gaborik's reluctancy to shoot when he was wide open in the slot. When Dubinsky was whistled for a phantom hi-stick, it brought the most dull three-on-three in existence. People who think this is the answer might want to re-think it because it's two D and a forward. Shockingly, it was very conservative forcing the skill comp.

In it, Erik Christensen pulled off his Forsberg imitation steering us in front. After Lundqvist denied Michal Handzus, Zuccarello moved in slowly driving me nuts only to then fake Bernier out completely for an easy goal. But it wasn't over when LA shootout ace Jarrett Stoll picked high glove on Lundqvist making him seven for eight this year. After Wojtek Wolski was pokechecked by an aggressive Bernier, it came down to Kopitar and Lundqvist. Exactly the kind of theatre you'd want. Kopitar tried for high glove but Henrik got a piece to push it over the top, sealing a large win.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Weekend Observations

On what's a great sunny Monday with near 60 degree Spring weather- a virtual miracle- rather than do recaps, I'm going to give some more observations on what's been going on. In no particular order:

1.The Rangers finally snapped a six-game winless streak yesterday by coming back from two early goals down to defeat the shorthanded Pens 5-3 at MSG. To say it was big is an understatement. Especially with Carolina and Atlanta closing in along with Buffalo. It may not have started out well but John Tortorella's timeout settled his club down and they responded by scoring five straight en route to their first win in three weeks. The best aspect was they scored three power play goals. Repeat. THREE POWER PLAY GOALS! Coincidence that Steve Eminger was back for Mike Del Zotto?!?!?!?! We kid. Ryan Callahan netted two of them. One on a redirect and the other on a quick shot from the left circle with Brandon Dubinsky screening Marc-Andre Fleury. Brian Boyle started the comeback with a nifty deflection of a Marc Staal shot. Vinny Prospal,who set up the goal also was the beneficiary of a nice Marian Gaborik feed for a slam dunk. Prosp continues to prosper since returning with two goals and an assist in five games. Gaborik didn't score but has been more active lately. A good sign. Artem Anisimov got the other PPG with Mats Zuccarello setting him up. If they really want to prove this isn't a fluke, then games Thursday and Friday against the Kings and Devils loom large.

2.The Islanders were hit hard, stemming from Friday's bloodshed with the league announcing the verdict after the club exacted revenge on the Pens highlighted by 15 fights, 10 game misconducts and 346 penalty minutes in their 9-3 rout. Not surprisingly, Trevor Gillies was suspended nine games for his dirty high hit that concussed Pens' rookie Eric Tangradi. His antics crossed the line as did goon Matt Martin who tried to sucker punch No.1 target Max Talbot. He gets four games. Nothing for Micheal Haley who had a memorable night taking on all comers including Brent Johnson before Eric Godard violated league policy by coming off the bench- earning a mandatory 10-game ban. The part that is mind boggling is that the Islanders were fined $100,000 while the Penguins zilch. How could that be? Even if the Islanders deserve a bulk of the criticism for going overboard in response to Talbot's unpenalized blindside hit that KO'd Blake Comeau four games and Johnson's one punch KO that put Rick DiPietro out over a month, it doesn't add up. Especially when Godard comes off the bench and double teams Haley. Shouldn't the Pens or possibly coach Dan Byslma been fined?

3.As for Mario Lemieux's statement:

Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that. ... The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. ... If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it.
Before I chime in on where Mario's wrong, let's first admit that yes he has a point about the league needing to be tougher in this area. The four-game suspension to repeat offender Matt Cooke was a joke. How does he get that after all the garbage he's pulled? Anton Volchenkov is a clean player and received one less game for an elbow. Could the suspensions have been longer? Sure. I could've seen 12 for Gillies and definitely feel Martin should've received at least double because it was a deliberate attempt to injure. I agree with why the Islanders were upset but feel you shouldn't break The Code to do it. Make Talbot drop his gloves first. If Super Mario's going to get on his high horse and criticize the NHL for how it handles these delicate situations, fine. But it would be refreshing if No.66 also came out publicly and ripped Cooke a new one for his blatant disrespect. That's not hockey.

4.As for the Islanders on the ice yesterday, what heart they're showing. They followed up a nine-goal outburst with seven more in another unpredictable 7-6 overtime win which hurt Buffalo in the standings. The Sabres have had trouble all year with their Kryptonite losing three of four to the club who they once traded star Pat Lafontaine to in exchange for Pierre Turgeon. Other players were involved including Uwe Krupp. In a game the Sabres needed two points in with Carolina winning late at Atlanta to move up to 62 points two behind the Rangers, instead it turned into another showcase for Michael Grabner. The emerging Calder hopeful followed up his first three-point game with the first hat trick of his career. The wiz kid who both the Canucks and Panthers let go now is tied with San Jose's Logan Couture for tops among freshmen with 24 goals following an exclamation point finish when he beat Ryan Miller for the third of the game on a fancy deke. He has a five-game point streak over which time the former Vancouver first round pick has a ridiculous nine goals and two helpers. The 23 year-old Austrian is showing why he was selected that high, finally getting the opportunity on Long Island. If nothing else, GM Garth Snow looks like a genius. Too bad we can't say the same for his foolish support of Gillies. Anyone could've had Grabner and now he's emerging into a legit finisher. Exactly what John Tavares, who notched his 21st, has needed. With Kyle Okposo (2-6-8 in 12 GP) rounding into shape and Matt Moulson (21 goals) proving last year wasn't a fluke, suddenly the Islanders can score. No wonder they're a point behind the sizzling Devils who are getting all the talk of a possible playoff miracle. Nobody is saying the same of the Islanders who remain without a true No.1 goalie with Al Montoya (12 saves) relieving rookie Mikko Koskinen for the victory. The Isles look to continue their torrid pace when they visit Ottawa tomorrow and return home for Boston Thursday.

5.Meanwhile, yesterday was a bitter pill for Ryan Miller to swallow. In permitting seven goals, the rating Vezina winner got testy with a couple of Buffalo News reporters who questioned whether confidence has become an issue. “Give me a break, they scored goals,” he said, after being asked how he felt by John Vogl. “I’m just frustrated.” Who could blame him? He has to start every game and play up to par for the Sabres minus Derek Roy to have any chance. Was it a bit out of character for the Team USA hero? Of course. But when reporters push buttons and even make foolish statements about how many instances he's given up four-or-more, it's not professional. Is the guy supposed to be happy after the weak attempt by Andrej Sekera that led to the winner? Lindy Ruff even second guessed not pulling him. But it's not like Patrick Lalime is insurance. Newsflash: Darcy Regier, this ain't '03 when Lalime was nearly good enough to best Martin Brodeur in the Conference Finals.

6.How about Drew Stafford. Three more goals Sunday including the clutch tying one that gave Buffalo a point. His fourth hat trick has him up to a club-leading 23 goals- one better than Thomas Vanek despite missing 18 games. Where would the Sabres be without him?

7.Buffalo has a tough back-to-back traveling to Montreal tomorrow and then returning to HSBC for the Maple Leafs, who are no picnic thanks to rookie netminder James Reimer and the hot trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin. If they want to stay in the race, this is a big week.

8.It's too bad about Peter Forsberg, who needed only 35 minutes in his latest comeback attempt with the Avalanche to realize it wasn't going to work. Foppa announced his retirement today. In two games, he had no points and was minus-four. At 37, the time is finally right for Forsberg to call it quits. Even with all the injuries, we're still talking about one of the most talented players to ever play the game. Someone who was breathtaking to watch working his magic with the puck, Peter The Great will never be forgotten. It's a shame that the Cup winner and two-time gold medalist never got to really go out on his terms. All too ironic considering who he'll always be linked with in Eric Lindros, who suffered the same cruel fate. Sometimes, you wonder how they would've done if they'd stayed with their original teams before Lindros forced Quebec to trade his rights with the Flyers beating out the Rangers in an arbitration ruling that I remember like yesterday. And so, Lindros went to the City of Brotherly Love for a larger than life package that featured Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, two first round picks (Jocelyn Thibault-later dealt to Habs for Patrick Roy, Nolan Baumgartner-traded to Caps) plus cash. One franchise still relocated to the Rockie Mountains becoming one of the elite winning two Cups ('96, '01) with the dynamic duo of Forsberg and Joe Sakic making the former Nordiques a contender. Both Lindros and Forsberg won the Hart but only one lifted Lord Stanley with the Big E taking the '97 Flyers to the Final before the Red Wings swept them. It was as close as he came. Forberg finishes with 249 goals and 636 assists for 885 points with a plus-238 rating in only 708 games. By comparison, Lindros registered 372 goals and 493 assists for 865 points with a plus-215 over 760 games. Amazing that neither ever reached 800. Sad too. Ironic that the production is so similar with Lindros breaking down more towards the end when he was a shell of himself post-lockout with Dallas and Toronto. Two great players. Will either make the Hockey Hall Of Fame???

9.How tight is the West? After top two Vancouver and Detroit, seven total points separates 10 teams vying for the remaining six with Dallas and Anaheim tied with 68 while Nashville and Phoenix have 67, San Jose has 66, Minnesota and LA are tied with 65, Calgary has 64, Chicago has 62 and rejuvenated Columbus has 61. Every year, the Western race is compelling with teams scrambling to make the cut. With so many still in the hunt, what does that mean for the trade deadline? How many teams will be sellers? In the East, the Devils are 9-0-1 in their last 10 with 48 points, still trailing eighth Carolina by 14. They meet twice this week. New Jersey believes they can do it. The Rangers are seventh with 64 while the Hurricanes have 62 with the Thrashers ninth at 60. Buffalo has 58 points and Florida has 55. Toronto also is in front of the Devils with 52 despite an OT loss that saw Ilya Kovalchuk go coast to coast for a thrilling decider last week. Even the Islanders at 47 have to believe they can make a push. Given how teams ahead have struggled, why not? That's why it'll be very interesting to see what happens as we get closer to February 28. A lot can happen in two weeks. Get ready!

10.Hart: 1.Steven Stamkos 2.Tim Thomas 3.Daniel Sedin

11.Vezina: 1.Tim Thomas 2.Carey Price 3.Henrik Lundqvist

12.Norris: 1.Nick Lidstrom 2.Kris Letang 3.Shea Weber

13.Calder: 1.Jeff Skinner 2.Logan Couture 3.Corey Crawford

14.Selke: 1.Ryan Kesler 2.Mike Richards 3.Brian Boyle

15.Jack Adams: 1.Barry Trotz 2.Guy Boucher 3.Todd Richards

16.Lady Byng: 1.Loui Eriksson 2.Martin St. Louis 3.Marian Gaborik

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.

Slap Shot IV: Islanders destroy Penguins

By now, you've seen the mass destruction that took place last night between the Islanders and Penguins. The Long Island hosts avenged a 3-0 shutout defeat nine days ago in which Pens' forward Max Talbot blindsided Blake Comeau, concussing him. That game also featured Rick DiPietro receiving a one punch knockdown courtesy of Pittsburgh backup Brent Johnson- sending him out of action four to six weeks with a broken jaw. The Islanders didn't care for the laughter the Pens bench had following the incident. Last night, it all boiled over with the Isles doing significant damage on the scoreboard (9-3) while also brutalizing anyone in a Pens jersey.

In a game reminiscent of Slap Shot, the Islanders and Penguins combined for 15 fights, 10 game misconducts and 346 penalty minutes. Was it excessive? Absolutely. There was no need to go overboard in the third with the game decided. The Islanders led 8-2 and had already made their point with Micheal Haley pounding Craig Adams into submission and goon Matt Martin going out of his way to flatten Talbot who wanted no part of it. But they didn't stop in the third with Haley beating up Talbot and then skating across the ice to challenge Johnson, who was more than willing to go. It only got worse when former Islander enforcer Eric Godard came off the Pittsburgh bench to interrupt that fight while getting in a few punches, making it an unfair two-on-one. At that point, it was expected in a game that would've made Paul Newman's Reggie Dunlop proud and The Hansons. This was old-time hockey dating back to the 70's.

We'd already seen this between the Bruins and Canadiens with Boston pounding Montreal in similar fashion two days prior. That game had nearly half the minutes and scraps. Go figure. I could tell almost from the outset what was going to happen. Both teams came out physical. Two fights including career AHLer Trevor Gillies against Godard were just the appetizer. Gillies, who went out of his way to deck poor rookie Eric Tangradi concussing the Pens forward- should be suspended and fined. Thing is he'll probably go back down along with Martin and probably Haley. So, what will the NHL decision be? Godard's facing a mandatory 10-game ban for leaving the bench. Both coaches should be suspended for their involvement and we're sure the NHL will come down hard on the Islanders with a hefty fine.

We'll try to upload more videos of the chaos and perhaps another post on one of the wackiest games ever. Or as Tony Granato labeled it, "The most embarrassed he's felt," to be involved in a game. Well, when your team dishes it out with guys like Matt Cooke, Talbot and even All-Star Kris Letang playing on the edge, at some point you have to expect someone to hit back. Last night, the Islanders did, mugging the Pens. It doesn't make it right. Maybe if Gary Bettman had a brain, there'd be no instigator and fake tough guys like Cooke would be made accountable for their actions on the ice. There's no respect anymore and that's why you're seeing more and more of these ugly incidents, which do not help the league. But hey, we're sure the powers to be are proud. Why else would E-Z Target Sean Avery rip the refs for a missed Eric Boulton late elbow following a whistle? This is the NHL's mess. Hope you're happy.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sabres two out, Islanders win

Both the Sabres and Islanders were winners last night making it three-for-three for Battle clubs. While Ilya Kovalchuk continued the Devils' tear with a beautiful end to end rush beating rookie James Reimer, the Sabres used Tyler Myers' OT winner with four seconds left to edge the Panthers 3-2- cutting the Canes' deficit to two. Yes, Buffalo suddenly is right on the heels of the eighth seed and with Carolina losing in Philly 2-1 and the Thrashers and Rangers slumping, Buffalo suddenly is right there.

Meanwhile, the Islanders got an exciting 4-3 shootout win over the Canadiens. Michael Grabner tallied twice for numbers 19 and 20.

More later.

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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