Friday, April 20, 2012

Brodeur, Devils rebound in convincing Game 4 win

Down 2-1 against the Panthers after a potentially soul-crushing Game 3 defeat, the Devils knew they needed a few things to happen to turn the series around. Martin Brodeur had to be better than he was for the first three games, particularly Tuesday night when he got pulled in a tie game with a series of bad goals. Our vaunted PK had to pick it up and start killing penalties at closer to 80 or 90% efficiency as opposed to the 40% of the first three games. And our offensive stars like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk needed to start getting on the board more frequently.

All of those factors came together in Game 4, as the Devils finally played a complete sixty-minute game in a 4-0 win that wasn't quite as convincing as the score would suggest, but was still satisfying in every way. Brodeur responded to adversity the way he has so many times before, with a twenty-six save shutout. Parise and Kovalchuk each contributed goals (as did linemate Travis Zajac), with the captain even leading the team in hits as well. And our struggling PK finally looked more like it did in the regular season - giving the Panthers an 0-fer on five power play chances...though admittedly the loss of Panthers defenseman Jason Garrison and his 100 MPH slapshot due to an unspecified lower body injury helped that last stat.

Early on, it was hard to tell which way this game was going as both teams played a bit more open than they wanted to with goalies Brodeur and Scott Clemmensen making a couple of good saves each. At least the Devils' early hitting (including a freight train hit by Stephen Gionta on the much bigger Jerrod Smithson) set a tone that last night was going to be different effort-wise at least. Parise had several early hits too, yet joked his dad who was in attendance must have been keeping score when told he led the team in that category.

Still, the game was scoreless after one and we hadn't yet come close to solving Clemmensen after his spotless nineteen-save relief appearance against the Devils in Game 3 and unbeaten record against us during the regular season. Ironically, after all the worrying about the Panthers' power play in this series, it was our own man advantage that finally broke the ice in the second period with a perfect Parise deflection off a Zajac shot. Parise's second goal in the series (both at home) came at 6:08 with the assists going to Zajac and Marek Zidlicky. Getting an early lead was ideal but hardly satisfying after the Devils nearly blew a three-goal lead in Game 1 and took less than fifteen minutes to waste a similar cushion in Game 3. However, the Devils played much better defensively in a second period where each team only got seven shots, and that 1-0 scoreline remained until the third.

After being even in shots through two periods with the slimmest of leads, the Devils finally broke the game open in the third period with yet another goal from the fourth line. Junior Gio made a great play to get the puck in the zone and feed it to Steve Bernier, who roofed a glove-side beauty past Clemmensen at 2:02 to provide some breathing room. Bernier's goal was the third scored by that line in this series - one each by Gionta, Bernier and Ryan Carter. This, after a season where the fourth line was among our biggest issues and junior Gio was an afterthought down in Albany until Jacob Josefson's 94th injury prompted a callup. Brodeur also contributed to the offense with his second assist of the series on Bernier's goal.

With heroic play from the fourth line amping up the sellout crowd again, the first line kept up the momentum just ninety-three seconds later, with a little help from David Clarkson. Clarkson made an unbelievable play - especially for him, skating into the zone solo from center ice, circling the net, then finding a wide open Zajac just outside the shot for a high one-timer past Clemmensen to give us the worst lead in hockey. I've always mocked that expression from Stan Fischler, but it's been frighteningly true in this series. Clearly the only solution was to get a fourth goal, which Kovalchuk did as the Devils converted on another power play at 8:32 to finally put the game on ice. Fill-in Peter Harrold got an assist on Kovy's second of the series and unbelievably, stay-at-home defenseman Bryce Salvador got his second assist of the game and third of the series on Kovy's goal.

At this point in the game, the physical play got dialed up a notch with the teams combining for twenty-six penalty minutes, including a ten-minute misconduct by Clarkson in the last minute of the game. Granted, you get those kinds of totals when someone breathes the wrong way in Pennsylvania, but in what's been a tame series thus far compared to almost everything else around the league this represented a step up. Florida proved they weren't backing down, and neither did we, finally showing a little killer instinct and not letting them get any life. Our crowd was similarly ruthless, chanting 'You're a backup!' towards former friend Clemmensen late in the game. For his part, before the game Clemmensen said he still loved Devils fans, no matter how loud we booed him. Hey, all's fair in love and playoff hockey right?

As happy as I was about last night and finally solving Clemmensen, all this game did was give us a stay of execution and prove we have no business losing this series if we play sixty minutes and Marty/our penalty kill play up to form. Another bone of contention going into this game was defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who'd been on the ice for nine of the Panthers' ten goals in the first three games and directly responsible for at least a couple of them. Not only did he look slow and still bothered by the late-season 'flu', but he was also playing fewer minutes (around twelve per game). He still didn't look like the old Anton last night, but at least he played over sixteen minutes and finished with a +2.

Perhaps the best thing out of Games 3 and 4 was the crowd. I had a headache after Game 3 but figured it was because of my own screaming, after I lost it the way I never lost it at a game before. However, I had a headache in Game 4 too and didn't have nearly as much stress over this one. Whether it was because of the amped up PR system or the actual crowd itself I still can't tell, but either way having a sellout crowd of 17,625 for two mid-week first-round games with the Panthers was a good sign. Especially with the late college night promos selling out the remaining tickets and getting louder fans into the building.

Granted, some of the stuff at games during this series has been kind of hokey, like PR announcer Kevin Clark telling us to stand up and shout - there's one minute remaining on the penalty kill and things like that (particularly in Game 3, which became kind of amusing given the circumstance...last night the PR guy wasn't nearly as omnipresent). Yet as much as we might think it sounds college-like, it works for this crowd, which has a lot of younger fans to begin with. And the Devils gave a nod to the old-timers by using the CAA goalhorn for Game 3. Evidently, superstition kicked in after we lost that game coupled with the Retro Night loss with the old goalhorn, and we went back to the current one in Game 4 but it was still a nice touch, as was the intro video - which also had a little of everything in it.

Although last night was a good start, this team needs to finish the job now. Starting Saturday in Florida would be a good thing, since a win there would prevent a possible home elimination Tuesday. This team should know what it needs to do, it just needs to do it now.

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