Friday, April 13, 2012
Devils' early dominance enough to win Game 1 in Florida
After a six-day wait to start their first-round series, the Devils came out like caged beasts ready to wreak havoc and destruction, scoring the game's first three goals and outshooting the Panthers by an unreal 26-9 margin in the opening twenty minutes. By the time the game was over however, the Devils once again got the lesson hammered home that very little comes easy in the postseason - barely avoiding disaster by holding on for a 3-2 win in Game 1, relieving nervous Devils fans everywhere after a bad second period and dissapointing a Panthers crowd that was anxious to see its first postseason game in twelve years.
This wasn't just a case of a game having three periods worth of ebb and flow, but the three periods themselves all seemed to be three different games. Normally, I'd be at home watching this game but I was actually at the Prudential Center, thanks to my friend who won access to a special viewing party with free food (pasta, hot dogs, nachos and supposedly chicken fingers though I didn't see them) and soft drinks. With the game being shown on the jumbotron as well as the inordinate number of TV's around the Acela Club, everyone had a good view of the Devils' first playoff game.
Although I make no bones of the fact I was confident we should win this series, I really didn't know how the first game would go. If anything, I thought Florida would be the team with a ton of early momentum thanks to a home crowd starved for playoff hockey, but instead a well-rested Devils team overwhelmed the home side in the first twenty minutes. Ironically, after all the pregame speculation on whether Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen would start in goal for the Panthers, coach Kevin Dineen stuck with Theodore - and the one-time NHL Hart Trophy winner kept his team in it despite a barrage of chances from anywhere and everywhere in the first period.
It took us fourteen shots to finally get on the board, but when we did it was a beauty courtesy of Patrik Elias, who made a series of moves at the side of the net - finally getting Theodore to drop to the ice and beating him with a wicked short-side shot that got the Devils on the board at 6:31. Although Danius Zubrus and Bryce Salvador got assists on the goal, that was all Patrik at his best - and the veteran Czech gained instant redemption after Theodore had stoned him on a breakaway minutes earlier.
Following a double minor high-sticking penalty by Shawn Matthias, the Devils peppered the net on the ensuing four-minute power play, finally getting a second goal on another beautiful play started by goalie Martin Brodeur, who found an open David Clarkson with a pass 150 feet away at the other blueline. Then, Clarkson found Zubrus with a nifty little pass of his own, and Zubrus did the rest - beating Theodore on a mini-breakaway at 14:11. Almost as if emotionaly stunned by that goal, the Panthers immediately gave up another goal 45 seconds later when Ryan Carter gained the zone and managed to beat Theodore with a wrister glove-side that put the Devils up by a whopping three goals. Ironically, Carter started the season as a Panther, but was picked up off waivers by the Devils a couple months into the season and wound up stinging his former mates.
At this point, Dineen called timeout and I thought might even pull Theodore but he sent a message loud and clear that Theodore was his guy by leaving him in there, and to his credit he did stem the tide after that, making 23 saves in that first period and finishing with 35 stops on the night. After the first period, things couldn't have looked better and the Devils did start out the second as if they wanted to finish things off but eventually the tide turned, and after Sean Bergenheim blew by Anton Volchenkov and scored 7:44 into the second, momentum shifted. While the Devils did get a majority of the power plays on the night (six, including the double-minor to just two for the Panthers) the Panthers did make the most of one of their opportunities at 15:42 when Kris Versteeg somehow stuffed one through Brodeur to cut the lead to one, and give Devil fans scary flashbacks.
After all, Versteeg had only scored four goals against the Devils in the teams' four regular season matchups, but more chillingly, arguably the Devils' worst loss in the season came in Florida when they blew a 3-0 lead. There were definitely some stress-raising moments in the second period as the Devils nearly lost the entire lead before intermission mercifully came. At that point, the Devils did play better in the third period, only allowing the Panthers a handful of shots and maybe one or two real scoring chances.
About the only thing I didn't like in the third period was the Devils playing it conservative on the power play with less than five minutes left, using two defensemen at the point. Not that I can blame coach Pete DeBoer entirely, with the memory fresh in mind of our fifteen or so shorthanded goals allowed this season, but still I didn't have the confidence in the Devils to hold a one-goal lead sitting on it and the power play doesn't know what to do with themselves when we do put two defensemen on the point. However, they did hold it and finally sealed a victory that looked certain after twenty minutes - giving Brodeur his 100th career playoff win (second only to Patrick Roy).
Oh, and the viewing party? It was supposed to be attended by a hundred Devil fans who could bring a guest, so two hundred was the book number. However, it definitely looked like more than two hundred were there. Even the security guards were commenting on it as me and my friend were waiting to go in, and one of the vice presidents or COO's of ticket operations addressed the crowd during the first intermission and said that 98% of people who printed out a ticket came (supposedly an unheard of percentage, according to this guy who's worked with other teams before and done similar types of viewing parties).
Bear in mind, all of us who won the chance to go to this viewing party only got notice of it 24 hours before the game. In fact my friend didn't remember entering the contest at all, and she had to ask me if the e-mail she got was real lol. It was certainly worth going though, the only expense was paying for the $5 parking at the garage in the arena, and my friend buying an $8 glass of wine at the bar. We even got extra team posters that were left over from Fan Appreciation Day and took a few. Although we didn't get in early enough to get a ledge seat by the scoreboard, we had a good view of one of the TV's and eventually as some of the crowd cleared out, we did watch the final few minutes on the jumbotron at the Prudential Center. And yes, they played the goal horn when we scored and when we won, though it didn't come with the Rock and Roll Part 2 goal song like it would for an actual home game.