After a road Game 1 win, the Devils' momentum from being ahead in the series lasted precisely twenty-three seconds last night. That's how long it took for Andy Greene to take a dumb penalty and the Devils' GREAT PENALTY KILL to give up their second power-play goal in the series and go behind when long-time Panther Stephen Weiss scored off a rebound. Ironically, the second period started in a similar fashion after late first-period penalties by Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson on the same shift gave the Panthers a full two-minute five-on-three. And again, they took advantage when Weiss scored off a rebound at 1:12 of the second period.
While the Panthers' power play was cashing in goal after goal, the Devils power play was so clueless in its two chances, you wondered if the improvement they'd shown the last fifty games was all a dream. I'm more used to a bad power play though, the fact that a penalty kill that set a modern regular season record - killing almost 90% of penalties with a ton of shorthanded goals, to boot...is now 2-5 (that's a 40% rate) at killing off penalties for the series is mind-boggling. Special teams and a lack of passion in the first forty minutes doomed us to an almost insurmountable 3-0 hole after two, and eventual defeat.
Yes, I figured the Panthers would come out better in this game and probably win. And my pre-series prediction was Devils in six, so I didn't expect it to be a walkover. But I expected us to win in part, because I didn't see us making the mistakes of the past and giving away games, taking teams lightly. The Devils' effort (or lack thereof) in the first forty minutes was mind-boggling. It was so bad, even coach Pete DeBoer - usually known for his patience and understatedness in the postgame - could barely hide his disdain over the first forty minutes. Look no further than mercurial Ilya Kovalchuk for an indication of the lack of effort, as he got beaten to the puck by a 900-year old John Madden and nearly gave up one shorthanded chance, then gave up another shorthanded chance when Marcel Goc juked him out of his skates.
I thought this team was beyond games like this in the playoffs, I really did. After three straight first-round losses followed by the disaster that was last year, the fact that you would even come out lacksadaical in one playoff game is mind-boggling. Last night's game reminded me of Games 4 and 6 in Carolina in 2009, where each time the Devils had a chance to take control of, or win the series and pulled a complete no-show in the first two periods. Clearly the Panthers have proved that the four close regular season games aren't a fluke and that you can't go half-speed to beat them - in a playoff game, much less.
In the first twenty minutes, the two teams combined for just seven shots. Clearly Florida wanted to avoid another first-period meltdown the way they did Friday night. To go from allowing twenty-six shots in the first period to allowing four, well that isn't all just the other team improving. I don't quite know what we were doing or where our head was at with some of these stupid penalties. Not to mention dumb decisions, like in the second period when Anton Volchenkov let Goc dipsy-doo at the side of the net and use him as a screen for a bad goal that somehow trickled through Martin Brodeur at 14:39 of the second, bulging the Panthers' lead to three.
Volchenkov himself is a concern too, he was sat the last game of the season due to the 'flu' but after an eight-day rest, he's only played south of twelve minutes a night in the first two playoff games. This, after some strong late-season play. So clearly something's still not right there, and Volchenkov's injury issue is definitely affecting the PK, among other things. Not to mention the guy who's usually doing the hitting has been getting hit on more than one occasion this series. Don't believe the hit numbers from the Florida rink, the Devils as a team really weren't hitting the first two periods last night.
As a whole, the defense has been a dissapointment so far other than the third period of Game 1...they have let the Panthers' top line keep running riot just like in the regular season, and if you can't stop a one-line team's one line, you're in a world of trouble. With Kris Versteeg scoring in the first game, followed by Weiss's two goals last night, the top line has put up three of the Panthers' five goals in the first two games - granted, all have been on the power play but hey, we're supposed to have a great PK, right?
There's a reason I've waited this long before even mentioning the third period...it only served to annoy me more about the first two. Amazingly, Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac wiped out almost all of the three-goal deficit inside of two minutes, with Zajac scoring after 48 seconds and Kovy scoring 2:01 into the third period. And Panther coach Kevin Dineen had already used his timeout, arrogantly calling one at 2-0 after the Panthers had a couple of subpar shifts in the second. Despite constant pressure with twelve shots in the third period though, the tying goal remained just out of reach the rest of the night. Whether it was Kovy putting a rebound just wide of an open-net or Zach Parise missing in close time and again, the final twenty minutes just added more frustration on an already annoying night.