Sunday, January 8, 2012

Devils finish first half with comeback win over Pens

Some people look at the turn of the new year as the second part of the NHL season, others point to the All-Star game as the point where things start turning serious. However, the 41st game of the season is the true halfway point for each team and right now things couldn't be more different for the Devils compared to last year. The halfway point in early January last season represented the lowest ebb of the Devils' season as they finished 10-29-2, leaving them twenty-seven points out of a playoff spot. This year however, the Devils are 23-16-2 and in fifth place of a competitive Eastern Conference - including a 10-4-1 stretch in their last fifteen games after their second 3-1 win over the Penguins in eight days.

As was the case last Saturday in New Jersey, the Devils' best players again played key roles in the win, led by Martin Brodeur who turned back the clock with a 41-save performance, allowing only Evgeni Malkin's first period goal at 4:48. After Malkin opened the scoring, the first period went downhill from there as the Devils went nine minutes without getting a shot and were outshot 12-3 in the opening twenty minutes. Fortunately they managed to escape the first still down only one, though James Neal tried to push one in off his hand but the refs disallowed the goal. Neal's attempted chicanery came just moments after Pete DeBoer had used his timeout because the Devils were getting dominated to such an extent, however the turnaround wouldn't come until the second period.

In a wild second period where each team managed to get seventeen shots on net, the Devils came out the better team early but the game didn't truly turn until a dumb Eric Boulton interference penalty left the Devils shorthanded. As the saying goes, a tiger's most dangerous when it's wounded. This Devils team is most dangerous when down a man, and sure enough Adam Henrique would get a breakaway courtesy of a Zach Parise pass and cash it in at 8:39 to tie the game. That goal showed the rook's determination, since watching the game I threw my head back when Marc-Andre Fleury made the intial save on the breakaway thinking he had it. However, Henrique kept buzzing and found the rebound by Fleury's left pad, stuffing it in.

There turned out to be an additional complication though, as the ref's whistle apparently blew just before the goal...seems the refs were paying about as much attention as I was. However, it sounded like the whistle only half-tweeted before the goal, and fully blew just after it and the refs eventually upheld the goal that tied the game. Moments later Ilya Kovalchuk nearly had another shorthanded breakaway goal, but Fleury did stop this one. Kovalchuk wouldn't have to wait long to get another chance though, and he would convert on it, cranking a slapshot home from the blueline at 11:23 to give the Devils the lead. Linemates Parise and Henrique each got an assist on Kovy's fifteenth goal of the year.

Now it was Dan Bylsma's turn to take timeout and try to change the momentum. And to their credit, the Penguins did pick it up but Brodeur was equal to the task, making a bunch of good saves including a stop on Chris Kunitz's one-timer just before the second period buzzer went off. Up 2-1, the Devils wanted to do something they rarely do - put the game away with another goal. During the whole season, the Devils have had their share of third period leads but only once have actually added to it...against Dallas on Niedermayer Night. Usually that has to do with a terrible power play that not only can't put teams away but usually keeps other teams in games with horrendous breakdowns.

Last night would be different however, as the Devils took advantage of an early power play to extend their lead after some nice passing from Kovy and Patrik Elias led to a tap-in goal by Danius Zubrus at 1:28. Zubrus's 12th of the year doubled the Devils' lead and for once, there was no third-period dramatics though they had to kill off a penalty after Henrik Tallinder threw one over the glass later in the period. Pittsburgh did get another thirteen shots on Brodeur in the third, but the NHL's all-time wins leader was equal to the task against a Pens team missing forwards Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal along with defenseman Kris Letang.

After the buzzer sounded on the first half of the Devils' season they headed to Western Canada for three games next week - at Calgary Tuesday, Edmonton Wednesday and Winnipeg Saturday. Brodeur's win last night gave him a victory in his 49th different NHL arena, since he'd only started once before in the Consol Energy Center and lost a shootout. He can run that total to an even 50 if he wins in the new Jets' arena next weekend. Following the game against Winnipeg though, the Devils will return home for the rest of the month - playing their next six games at the Prudential Center (with the All-Star break in between).

Pretty much the main concern for the team right now is the injury situation, with centers Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson still out, along with forwards Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene. Ostensibly the first three are all close to a return, but who really knows with the Devils? Volchenkov did get put on IR yesterday, but is still eligible to return at the start of the Devils' Canada swing.

Even without their full lineup however, the Devils are proving more and more by the game that last year was the exception and this could very well be a playoff team again.

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