Friday, April 27, 2012

Devils find their way into the second round after classic double-OT ending in Florida

I guess it just had to be this way...after six games of wild momentum shifts, blown leads and inept penalty killing - the entire Devils-Panthers series got encapsulated into one wild, long Game 7. A series that was even in goals with seventeen per team after six full games and regulation last night just had to have a dramatic finish to end the first round. Despite blowing a two-goal lead - again - it was the Devils who rebounded to break Panther hearts with an OT win...again, when Adam Henrique's wrister went just under a diving defenseman and goalender Jose Theodore at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the Devils one of their most memorable first-round wins in their proud history.

If the Devils were relieved to win, I'm sure the Panthers and their fans were heartbroken at the loss. Especially since they haven't won a playoff series since their run to the Stanley Cup Finals all the way back in 1996. At least Panther fans can be proud of their team though, they never quit in any game and made the Devils earn everything they got. Not to mention they're only on the upswing with rookie coach Kevin Dineen and GM Dale Tallon. Hey, we've been there all too many times in recent years, we know about demoralizing first-round defeats. In some ways it feels even worse to make the playoffs with a strong season and get bounced in the first round, psychologically the 82-game season seems like it means nothing when you have a 100-point year and don't even win a series in the playoffs.

For that reason and many others, winning this series was vital to the Devils. If they had lost a fourth straight first-round series, all after having more points than their opponent during the season, it surely would have led to sweeping changes. Not to mention losing in the fashion the Devils nearly lost last night's game would have caused more psychological baggage. Everyone knows about the last eighty seconds of the Carolina series in 2009, but blowing a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 7 would have been just as demoralizing - especially with the fact that last night was the third time in the series the Devils blew a multi-goal lead, and they nearly blew a three-goal lead in Game 1 as well. Normally teams that blow so many leads in the playoffs don't last very long.

This is where I have to give the Devils credit though, normally losses like Game 3 would be soul-crushing defeats that decide a series. Or losing two-goal leads in Games 6 and 7. As coach Pete DeBoer said half-kiddingly, 'They’re (the Devils) a resilient group. We’ve blown enough leads we’re used to that. It’s unfortunate, but we regrouped'. I'm sure he wouldn't have laughed about his own remark if the team had lost last night. Particuarly after a near-perfect first forty minutes of the game that saw the Devils go up 2-0 and stifle the Panther attack entirely.

Long before ending the night as the hero, Henrique began it just as nicely with a deflection goal just eighty-nine seconds into the game off a shot from Anton Volchenkov. Henrique hadn't scored yet in the series after a successful rookie season that led to him being a finalist for the Calder trophy. In fact, his whole line with David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky had been lacking in effectiveness during the first six games, but Henrique's first goal (with an assist by Clarkson on the play as well) got that line and the team off to an ideal start. Although the Panthers would wind up with more shots in the period, the Devils dominated the majority of the play and their control of the game showed even more in the second period, when they outshot Florida 11-2 and doubled their lead at 9:15 of the middle frame.

This time, it was Stephen Gionta who came through, putting home a rebound off a Peter Harrold shot, giving junior Gio his second goal of the series and third in just under two weeks after being an AHL afterthought for most of his career, previously known only as Brian's little brother who hadn't quite hit it big like big bro - the captain of the Canadiens after a successful Devils tenure. Stories like Gionta's are what make the playoffs so compelling though, since he only got his chance after Jacob Josefson got hurt and others like Matthais Tedenby, Nick Palmeri and Brad Mills failed earlier in the season. Our whole fourth line is something of a miraculous reclmation project with Ryan Carter (who also got an assist on the goal) a waiver pickup from the Panthers, ironically enough and Steve Bernier, a FA signing who last played in Florida after flaming out as an early pick earlier in his career with the Sharks. Without those three guys and the five-six big goals they produced, the Devils wouldn't have even been in the realm of winning this series.

I guess I should have known better than to assume a 2-0 lead would be safe with twenty minutes to go, but admittedly with the way the Devils were playing through forty minutes it looked like a lock. However, nothing else in this series has been a lock though when a goal by Tomas Fleischmann was contreversially disallowed due to goaltender interference, it looked as if that would be the break we needed to stay on top. Yet, the Panthers kept coming and soon, the Devils began to melt down - taking costly penalty after costly penalty. As has been the case the whole series, Florida made us pay for every little lapse in discipline, with Stephen Weiss scoring the Panthers' eighth power play goal of the series at 5:02 to tighten the collar. In every facet of the game, the Devils kept deteriorating, allowing nineteen shots in the third period after giving up only two in the second.

Eventually, our third and final minor penalty of the period proved decisive when Marek Zidlicky threw the puck over the glass, and Marcel Goc scored at 16:32 to tie the game, send Panther fans in a frenzy and get Devil fans like myself crazy. I literally lost it at this point, kicking pillows, ranting about how this team has no guts and can't hold a lead or kill off a penalty. Throughout the entire series, the Panthers were eight for thirteen on the power play with pointman Jason Garrison in the lineup and one for twelve without him in Games 4-6 with an unspecified injury. New Jersey barely survived more hair-raising chances at the end of regulation and now I was convinced it was just a matter of when, not if we would bite the dust.

Recent history was not with us, Game 6 aside this team's record in playoff OT has been poor in the Martin Brodeur era, and the Devils hadn't won two straight playoff games - or two straight OT games - since 2007. After looking shell-shocked toward the end of regulation, the Devils tried to refocus in the first OT but choked away a rare sudden death power play when Kris Versteeg nearly took out Bryce Salvador with a slashing penalty in the corner. Worse than losing a golden opportunity, the Devils nearly lost Salvador as he missed a few shifts in OT with what looked like a bad arm injury but in an act of grittiness that makes the NHL playoffs special, Salvador came back. Just as ex-Devil and current Panther John Madden came back after a terrible collision with teammate Tomas Kopecky early in the first period that drew a lot of blood.

Ironically it was Madden who had a couple of the Panthers' best chances of the OT on his stick, but he was turned away by old friend and teammate Brodeur - in the midst of a statement game. While I could no longer watch the TV once the Panthers gained the zone at any point during the OT, Marty remained calm, cool and collected despite the Devils being outshot by a combined 31-15 during the third period and first OT. Even Chico Resch acknowledged after the game that Marty had been part of the problem in the first six games of the series, but not last night. For the first time since Game 5 in 2009 against the Canes, Marty stepped up and took the team on his back in a big playoff game.

After the oldest Devil kept them in the game, it was the youngest one on the ice that won it just after midnight, when Henrique circled around after good puck work from Ponikarovsky and Clarkson on the boards, beating Theodore with a wrister that stunned everyone including me. Although I jumped up and pumped both fists, after a second I still had to pause and think 'okay, this series is really over now, right?'. Finally there would be no more Panthers bogeyman spoiling a lead in one of the most brutal first-round series imaginable. Among first-rounders we've won, only the '88 six-game upset of the Isles and the '94 classic against the Sabres could compare to this series. Certainly, the '09 series with the Canes was a classic as well, but with the wrong ending.

Along with the Rangers' win hours earlier against a similarly resilient Ottawa team, the Devils' win ensured three Atlantic Division teams would be among the final four in what's already been a compelling East playoffs following three seven-game series (including the Bruins-Caps series where every single game got decided by one goal) and the Flyers-Penguins video-game type six-game slugfest. Really the final four should be called the Patrick Division semis, since the Caps used to be division rivals before the NHL went to its current three-division format and put the Caps in the Southeast. With all of the games the Caps and Rangers have played in recent years (after a seven-game series in '09 and five-gamer last year, both won by Washington), that might as well still be a division rivalry.

We've got our hands full with a Flyers team that dismantled a recent Stanley Cup champ in Pittsburgh, led by the sensational Claude Giroux, who made a statement in Game 6 by demanding the first shift of the game - laying out Sidney Crosby and scoring a goal with that shift. Clearly our PK has to be much better, more in line with what we did against the regular season if we're to have any chance in this series, after the Flyers scored twelve power play goals against the Pens in just six games. Not to mention Marty has to be what he was for most of the second half of the season, and in Game 7 instead of the guy who struggled in the first half of the season, or most of the first six games against Florida.

I'm not really in the mood to think about that series though, heck I'm glad the Devils get the extra day off. Our players may or may not need the time off physically, but I sure as shooting need it emotionally! At least the rest of the playoffs we don't have to worry about the 800-pound gorilla on our backs of recent first-round failures. All I'd wanted out of this season is to finally get through the first round and to make a good showing in the second. Now that we're through the first round, I can fully enjoy playoff hockey instead of dreading the bottom falling out. Especially since we're not favored to win this series, but with the resiliency this team has finally showed when it mattered why can't we get some momentum and win this series? Despite our troubles against Ilya Bryzgalov, we did split six games with the Flyers this year. If we even split the first two games in Philly (Game 1 being Sunday afternoon and Game 2 Tuesday night), the Rock would be insane for Game 3.

At least it's nice to get a reminder of the good side of sports again, after the Mets' troubles in recent years, the Jets imploding last year after coming up just short the two previous seasons and the Devils' problems since the lockout. As my mom of all people (not a sports fan) put it last night, 'they got rid of the curse a little bit, didn't they'? That summed it up surprisingly well for me though three years plus one non-playoff season doesn't really qualify as a curse...but it was definitely a psychological hurdle this team needed to face down.

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