Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Devils win surreal shootout in Game 5
Sometimes you just can't find the right way to open or close a blog...especially after what was a bizarre Game 5 of this already wild Eastern Conference Finals, a game in which the Devils jumped out to an unexpected 3-0 lead at the Garden then melted down and got dominated for fifty minutes of play as the Rangers tied the game with some strange goals, before catching the one break they needed with a Ryan Carter rebound goal at 4:24 that proved just enough to finally win the game. Even with a tremendously meaningful win, at this point I'm too tired to celebrate. It literally was take two Advils and move on type of a game. I'm sure Derek probably feels much worse, after losing a game like that. Actually, the headline on NHL.com sums it up perfectly...'To Hell and back'. That's really what it was.
After dominating - especially at the beginning of each game - in the first four games, the Devils came out the first five minutes of this game like they meant business, with Stephen Gionta opening the scoring off a rebound of a Mark Fayne shot just 2:43 into the match. Steve Bernier also got an assist on little Gio's opening goal, his third of the postseason Just ninety seconds later, Patrik Elias scored the first of a series of strange goals on the night, as a puck bounced off his leg and off of Artem Anisimov's leg past Henrik Lundqvist for a shockingly quick 2-0 lead with Adam Henrique and Ilya Kovalchuk getting the assists on Elias's fourth postseason 'goal'. Being outshot 4-0 and thoroughly outskated, Ranger coach John Tortorella used his timeout less than five minutes into the game, underscoring the importance of the situation. After kicking the team out of practice a couple of days ago and stating that he needed to 'pray' for more production from his top line, apparently Torts finally found the right message to his team during those thirty seconds.
Even with the Rangers playing better immediately after the timeout, the Devils still took a 3-0 lead when Travis Zajac scored his team-leading seventh of the playoffs on a normal wrist shot at 9:49 with assists from Zach Parise and scoring machine Bryce Salvador, the kind of soft goal Lundqvist never gives up against the Devils. Maybe he's finally starting to show the effects of playing nineteen playoff games in six weeks? Whatever the case, even that bad goal didn't stop the Ranger onslaught. Despite an onslaught of blue that included a strange carom off the boards that nearly bounced past Martin Brodeur into an empty net, the Rangers' only goal was something of a fluke play when Brandon Prust got a breakaway and Marty tried a pokecheck, but somehow the puck wound up going under him after Prust botched the initial shot. At this point, I was just praying it didn't get to 3-2 at the end of the period the way it did in the first round against Florida in Game 3, when the Devils also blew a quick 3-0 lead.
While the Devils were fortunate to get out of the first still at 3-1, they were decidedly unfortunate when Ryan Callahan's 'redirection' off a skate found its way past Brodeur just thirty-two seconds into the second period. Unlike most Devil fans, I thought Callahan was skating sideways and it was hard to tell whether he kicked it intentionally or not given that fact but even if it was a bad call, it doesn't change the fact the Devils got dominated yet again in the second period, with Brodeur making several big saves to maintain the Devils' now slender lead. At one point, the Devils were outshot 19-4 after the second pivotal Torts timeout in the postseason - well second according to the media, I thought his timeout in Game 3 got a bit overplayed since the Rangers were still dominated for much of the second period, but obviously tonight he finally found the right message for his team. Either that or the Rangers just decided they didn't want to get embarrased at home.
For seventeen minutes during the intermission, I was relieved to still be at 3-2. That only lasted seventeen seconds once the third period started though, when Brodeur again misplayed a puck near the trapezoid of doom with Marian Gaborik pouncing on that, firing a shot into Brodeur then somehow swatting the puck in when Marty seemed to have it covered. That goal was reminiscent of a similar one Marty gave up against Florida in Game 5 of the first round, honestly I don't know what's going on but that trapezoid is spooking him like it never has before. That could have been a crushing blow, honestly I thought it was. I was just hoping it wouldn't be a 3OT loss with Mike Rupp scoring the game winner. New York got a scare of their own when Kovalchuk beat Lundqvist later in the third, but the goal was waved off due to the puck being played by a high stick, and even more remarkably Brad Richards shot the puck into his own goaltender but Lundqvist made his best save of the night to prevent that one from going in.
Other than that one non-chance and that gifted shot on goal, the Devils really didn't create much in the third, but neither did the Rangers. Perhaps they were just as spooked by Zajac's goal and the one that got by him earlier in the third and went back to the tortiose defense. Devil fans were just as puzzled by Pete DeBoer not using his timeout while the Rangers were dominating, but I agree with the coach in this case...you panic and use the timeout when you're leading, and you don't have it later on in case of a late-game icing or some other play setup. Which is exactly what happened, as DeBoer used his timeout midway through the third period after an icing call.
With both teams in a more defensive posture after a number of strange goals and almost-goals the game settled down, probably to the relief of the Devils. Yet, still I was prepared for the inevitable...until Carter took a pass from Gionta and fired a quick snapshot past Lundqvist for a stunning lead goal against the run of play, with Marek Zidlicky also getting an assist on Carter's third goal of the postseason. Consider at this time early in the season, Gionta was a career minor leaguer, Bernier was a former first-round pick washout without an NHL job and Carter was placed on waivers from the Panthers. Now that unlikely threesome has formed a life-saving fourth line in the playoffs. For years I've been wanting the Devils to get an actual NHL fourth line and saying how important it was, and it took a long time this year but it finally happened, almost by accident. Even after Carter's goal I wasn't particularly confident but Parise's empty-netter with just thirty-two seconds left finally sealed a wild game.
After the match, Stan Fischler remarked to Tortorella in his press conference how it was unfair that the Rangers lost. To his credit, Torts didn't agree and said among other things, 'it's hockey'. While I don't disagree with Stan, I hope he was saying the same things when we dominated much of Games 1 and 3, and lost thanks to great performances from Lundqvist. I can't argue with the fact that now three of the five games in this series have gone to the team that's been outplayed. It's about time one of those went our way though. On his end, DeBoer said afterward that the lead was unexpected and they didn't handle it well. At least they didn't completely crap out in this one, unlike that aformentioned Game 3 against Florida. For a team with as much character as the Devils, they sure didn't show a lot of poise today...but like Doc Emrick said on the broadcast (referencing a Ken Hitchcock quote), the other team's in the league and wants to win too.
Of course now that the Devils are up 3-2 in the series, with Game 6 being on the same night and in the same state that it was eighteen years ago during that classic Eastern Conference Finals, we're never going to hear the end of 1994 talk for the next couple of days. Ironically this is probably a game that has both me and Derek confident. I'm sure he's confident that the Rangers can carry over their play in Game 5 (judging by his tweets) and I'm confident in the respect that we should play a much better all-around game in Game 6, especially after surviving a trial by fire. Plus, Lundqvist hasn't been his usual stellar self in the last couple of games and they definitely need him to get a second wind to win two games in a row in this series.
Whatever happens, I'm sure it'll be another agida-inducing game for both fanbases. At least it should be rocking at the Rock Friday, particuarly after Games 3 and 4 where the crowd was as good as I've ever seen it for a Devil-Ranger game (in terms of the ratio of Devil fans to Ranger fans). Of course, it's up to the Devils to give the crowd some 'candy' and have something special to cheer about Friday night.