Thursday, April 26, 2012
Zajac gives Devils one last chance for redemption
As much as this series shouldn’t have come down to Game 7, perhaps it’s fitting it did in a way, since both teams have split ten hockey games with each other this year, starting with the four in the regular season and continuing with the first six playoff games. What’s more, each team has an identical total of fifteen goals in this playoff series. While it hasn’t been a classic seven-gamer like the Boston-Washington epic for example, it’s certainly been an unpredictable series with wild swings of momentum from game to game and within games. Not to mention some unexpected off-ice drama - most of it in the last seventy-two hours, mainly due to rats and Twitter…but I’ll get to that later.
Even Tuesday’s game provided a prism for the entire series, with the Devils dominating early and getting out to a lead, Florida clawing back into the game thanks to still-sketchy play from Martin Brodeur, and a dramatic OT winner from Travis Zajac, who now has the Devils’ last two playoff OT winners. For a guy who had a trying season (missing all but fifteen games due to injury) and even survived a scary moment in the second period when his rehabbed leg got landed on and he had to leave the ice, it was certainly a feel-good moment. Not to mention it provided relief for most of the 17,625 in attendance – especially me - who have seen the Devils get eliminated on home ice in their last four playoff series.
In truth, it was a game the Devils should have won long before that given their shot and territorial advantage over Florida. And for once, we got the benefit of the doubt on the whistle as the Panthers weren’t given gift penalties for their Hurricane-like diving the way they have been in recent games. True, Ilya Kovalchuk was tripped moments before the Panthers got a 4-on-2 break that led to their second goal but the Devils still had the majority of the power plays – which reflected the level of play. And unlike other playoff games, the officials weren’t looking to call every little thing which was in itself refreshing.
Even before the game, the Devils got a break when Panthers starting goalie Jose Theodore missed Game 6 due to an unspecified injury, after pitching a shutout in Game 5. True, Scott Clemmensen had his share of great games against the Devils before we finally got to him in the third period of Game 4, but it looked like this wasn’t going to be one of his better days when he allowed a turnaround shot by Steve Bernier to glance off his stick and through the five-hole to give the Devils a lead late in the first. Kovalchuk – despite fighting his own unspecified leg injury – made a brilliant play to pinch down low on an early second period power play, leaving his usual point or halfboards position. Zajac found a wide-open Kovalchuk for a tap-in goal just as the power play was set to expire.
However, no lead has been safe for the Devils this whole series and Game 6 proved to be no different. A pivotal moment occurred when David Clarkson took a seemingly harmless shot that Clemmensen couldn’t control, but made a diving glove save of the puck just before it was about to pop over the line. After getting off the hook, Clemmensen started to look more confident and wound up making 40+ saves on the night. Eventually Kris Versteeg gave the Panthers their opening goal with a shot that glanced off Alexei Ponikarovsky’s skate, and then Florida caught two breaks on their next goal. One being the aforementioned penalty that wasn’t called, and the second was Brodeur’s horrid play of a soft Michael Samuelsson shot, somehow losing the rebound and looking to his right when the puck was sitting to his left. Sean Bergenheim took advantage of Brodeur’s lapse and bad defense by Andy Greene to get a tap-in goal that stunned the crowd.
Despite outshooting the Panthers 16-4 in the second, New Jersey ended the period in worse shape than they began it.on the scoreboard, and that fact seemed to make the Devils anxious in the third, particularly offensively – even squandering a five-on-three for thirty seconds and almost two full power plays at the beginning of the period. Aside from a horrendous giveaway by Peter Harrold in front, at least the Devils managed to avoid defensive breakdowns, and with the way Brodeur was fighting the puck even on routine saves that was critical. Finally, in the OT they caught a break when Zach Parise’s backchecking on a two-on-one not only forced Stephen Weiss to shoot wide, but also started a breakout the other way that led to Kovalchuk drawing in Dmitri Kulikov before finding a wide open Zajac – who beat Clemmsensen with a backhander (again through the legs) that set off quite possibly the most emotional celebration in the young history of the Prudential Center.
You would think a dramatic OT winner and impending Game 7 would be leading the headlines going into tonight. Or even the health status of Theodore and power play quarterback Jason Garrison who missed the last three games but, like Theodore is expected to play tonight. With Garrison in the lineup, the Panthers’ power play is 6-10 against us. Without him, they’ve been 1-14, so that return to the lineup is a key for them. Not to mention this could be the last game in a Devils jersey for Parise and Brodeur, both of them UFA’s after this season – though Brodeur’s expected to return.
However, the on-ice drama has been eclipsed by off-ice goofiness. After the Devils’ Game 5 loss in Florida, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen accused Devil fans of throwing rats onto the ice to draw a penalty. I guess he failed basic math - when you have 18,000 people in the arena, most are Panther fans and almost as many rats are thrown from the stands, it ain’t Devil fans doing it. Especially late in the game, where there was no real advantage to doing so, down 3-0. Florida president Michael Yormark (ironically brother of New Jersey Nets president Brett Yormark) ran with it and announced the Panthers would no longer be selling rats, based on visiting Devil fans throwing them…gee, can’t be because you just don’t want your own undisciplined fans causing a delay of game and need a convenient scapegoat, can it?
Predictably, Yormark’s twitter was bombarded by irate Devil fans, including one Lauren Ashley, who tweeted that he was acting like an ***. Yormark responded that she obviously wasn’t popular because her twitter only had seventy followers. Predictably, that and curt responses to other Devil fans got everyone even angrier. Eventually, the media picked up on it when this fan (who, much to my amazement turned out to be long-time NJDevs poster LA03) got interviewed by PuckDaddy, and a Devils employee offered to let her sit in a suite for Game 6. Hundreds of Devil fans started following Ms. Ashley on twitter until she had more followers than Yormark. Finally, public pressure led Yormark to apologize to her, and offer her a flight and suite tickets for Game 7 in Florida as well. I guess the moral of the story is sometimes it pays to be passionate about your team.
While the sideshow is amusing, this Game 7 means as much as any game to the Devils franchise since Game 7 in 2003 for the Stanley Cup, with all that’s on the line – ownership issues, Brodeur nearing the end, Parise’s impending free agency – and the fact this team hasn’t won in the first round since moving to Newark with one crushing playoff defeat after another. Not to mention a first-round win would likely mean the Devils will give up their first-round pick this year and finally shed themselves of the albatross of the Kovalchuk cap penalty. Without a first-round win, we probably won’t give up the pick this year and with an uncertain future and time running out on us to decide when to take the penalty, eventually we’ll risk giving up a higher pick than this.
At times, the Devils haven’t given a playoff-worthy effort…but one win tonight, and all is forgiven. One more loss won’t be forgotten that easily, however.