Monday, May 7, 2012

Devils push Flyers to the brink of madness and elimination

Holding a 2-1 lead in the series, it would have been easy for the Devils to let down when falling behind 2-0 in Game 4 after a strong start went unrewarded. A lot of other Devil teams probably would have mailed it in for the night, heck a lot of other teams in the NHL would have likely been doomed to a night of frustration. However, this Devils team is better than that. This Devils team is not looking for excuses this year, they're just looking for ways to win. And a way to win is what these Devils found at the Rock last night, coming back to win a 4-2 performance that was more dominant than the score suggested.

Really, the dominance started from the opening drop of the puck...to such a degree that Flyer coach Pete Laviolette used his timeout in the first five minutes of the game - when the game was still scoreless. I've never seen anything like that close to happening, early timeouts yes, but never that early with the game still at 0-0. Clearly the Flyers didn't have jump, but the timeout didn't really help anymore than whatever the genius said to them before the game. What did help the Flyers was an asinine penalty called on Travis Zajac, who somehow fouled a Flyer when he was the one who was upended and high-sticked. Although the Flyers didn't score on that power play, it got their pulse going again and after Marek Zidlicky took another penalty just after the Devils had killed off Zajac's penalty, the Flyers would take advantage when Scott Hartnell's tip-in beat birthday boy Martin Brodeur at 11:50.

If that wasn't annoying enough, a Devils power play soon after that would get me even more peeved when shoddy defense and shoddy goaltending brought back memories of our early-season PP struggles when the dangerous Claude Giroux scored his eighth of the playoffs at 13:40 (but only the second of the series) on a slow puck that trickled under Brodeur, who surprisingly followed a subpar game with another shaky outing. Even some of his saves were adventures. At this point, I was kinda hoping Pete DeBoer would use his timeout, but he isn't looking to micromanage at this point of the year. He showed faith in his team, and got rewarded when Zidlicky atoned for his earlier penalty and bad defense on the shorthanded goal by giving Petr Sykora a perfect pass for a tap-in goal at 15:14 for Sykie's second of the playoffs.

After being on the giving end of the Devils' first goal, Zidlicky would be on the receiving end of a Bryce Salvador feed as Salvador continued his surprising spurt of offense with his fifth point of the postseason after Zidlicky's masterful tip beat Ilya Bryzgalov at 18:09, tying the game at two. Also getting on the scoresheet with assists in the first period were Travis Zajac on Sykora's tally and Ilya Kovalchuk on Zidlicky's scoresheet. It would be an otherwise quiet game for the big guns though, as Bryzgalov looked like the Game 2 version as he stifled the Devils for most of the first two periods despite the Flyers literally getting nothing going even-strength. New Jersey held an insane 32-10 advantage in shots through forty minutes, but were still tied late in the second.

In fact, the Flyers nearly scored the go-ahead goal but a block by Sykora that I still haven't seen (at the arena I could have sworn it was Danius Zubrus who got a piece of the puck) led to a breakout the other way, and Zubrus proceeded to fire a snapshot past Bryzgalov at 17:47 for Zubrus's second goal of the postseason. Sykora and Adam Henrique picked up the assists on the all-important third goal, which relieved a little of the pressure off the Devils. Just a little though, certainly this is a postseason where no lead has been safe. And when Flyers are around, no player is safe either - as Zubrus found out when a cheap shot by Giroux of all people angered everyone and sent Zubrus staggering off the ice. I was more nervous about whether Zubrus would return at that moment than about our slender lead, for Zubrus has been an absolute beast along the boards and in puck possession this postseason.

Fortunately, the third period started with good news as Zubrus came out and returned to the game, somewhat dramatically since he was the next to last player to come out of the locker room as I was nervously looking at who was going onto the ice or the bench to start the third period. However, a wasted power play on the Giroux headshot meant nervoustime could begin. While the Flyers didn't seem to get too many real opportunities, they did manage ten shots in the third period as the Devils played more defensively, not even attempting to score when Kimmo Timonen's late holding penalty gave the Devils a power play in the last three and a half minutes of the game. Thank goodness they didn't need one, as the Flyers had to empty the net and Zubrus would take advantage with another monster effort to ensure a putaway goal with just forty-five seconds left.

Zubrus's second of the night was assisted on by Mark Fayne...and Brodeur, who surprisingly became the oldest player ever to get an assist in a playoff game. No matter how much former Flyer GM Bobby Clarke tried to take away his puck-handling ability the winningest goalie ever has still found a way to make that part of his game an asset. Marty got to celebrate his 40th birthday in style with a win and assist that helped his team take a surprising 3-1 lead against a favored Flyers team that looked like it was disintegrating, showing its frustration time and again as the Devils refuse to play into their hands with after-whistle scraps - and the Flyers paid even more consequences for it today when Brendan Shanahan suspended Giroux for Game 5 after his inexcusable hit on Zubrus last night.

Unlike the first round where the Devils had to come from behind, now they have to show killer instinct and close the Flyers out while they're reeling. If not tomorrow, then absolutely on Thursday. This cannot be allowed to get to a Game 7, it's almost unprecedented for teams to win two straight Game 7's on the road. I can only think of two that have done it - the '09 Canes and the '03 Wild, and both were spent and got obliterated in the Conference Finals. We need to take the crowd out of it early and get them to turn on the home team, much like the Flyers did to us two years ago. Don't settle for a Thursday game. We might have to play a Thursday game in front of the red wall of sound, but don't let it be because we gave the game away easily. Make them work, and try to beat us three times at our best. From what I've seen the last three games, the Flyers will eventually have no answer if we keep playing our best.

No excuses at this point...get it done.

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