Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Devils win testy Game 4, even series
After the Devils were frustrated by Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist in two of the first three games of this Eastern Conference Finals, tonight it was the Rangers' turn to be frustrated by Devil dominance, as New Jersey got two first-period goals and an early third-period power play goal to put the game on ice - then the Rangers melted down and took stupid penalty after dirty penalty in a chippy third period that got more of the postgame attention than the game itself. Perhaps that was part of the design of John Tortorella goon squadding it up in the third period, as the Rangers certainly didn't do much to beat us on the ice. More on that later though.
In many ways, the first four games have started exactly the same - with Devil dominance in the first thirty-forty minutes, and these games have all become a matter of whether Lundqvist can frustrate us long enough for either our defense or Martin Brodeur to make a critical mistake and give the Rangers' tortiose system just enough offense to win. Sometimes you have to give a great player his due, Lundqvist wouldn't be the first or the last goalie to steal a series. I'm not going to lie though, losing this series would be hard to swallow as a Devils fan, especially with how the first four games have gone. By all rights it should be 3-1, if not 4-0 (somewhat unrealistic, but indiciative of how the territorial play has gone).
Clearly after being shutout in Game 3, the Devils needed early goal(s) to turn the tide in Game 4. The icebreaker came from an unlikely source - defenseman Bryce Salvador who somehow fired a slapshot through traffic and under Lundqvist's legs at 8:10 for his third goal of the playoffs after assists by Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson. That was the moment I've been waiting for - the Rocky IV type moment when Rocky's trainer screams at him after hurting his Russian superopponent - 'You see, you see, he's not a machine! He's a man!'. After that goal came the first hint of nastiness when Ryan McDonaugh came up high with a check on Adam Henrique and the mild-mannered Devil center dropped the gloves for the Devils' first fighting penalty of the postseason as each player received five minutes in the box.
Although Henrique was okay tonight along the boards, that exchange definitely favored us and we took advantage of not having the Rangers' leading defenseman on the ice when newly assembled top line Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Danius Zubrus combined for a beautiful goal, with Zubrus getting the puck to Parise after some typically outstanding board work, then Parise danced around Michael Del Zotto and dished off to Zajac on a two-on-one. Zajac finished the play in style, rifling a one-timer past Lundqvist at 11:59. Although Brian Boyle and Anton Volchenkov traded penalties later in the first period, for most of the game's first forty minutes, the refs seemed intent on letting the players play.
Compared to what came in the first period and what was to come in the third, there wasn't much action in the second period although Ilya Kovalchuk and Ryan Callahan received matching minors when Callahan hit Kovalchuk after the whistle, and Kovy responded in kind with a spear. Early in the third period, Derek Stepan was called for high sticking and it only took the Devils four seconds to take advantage on the power play, when Henrique won the faceoff to Kovalchuk, who took a shot with Parise stuffing in the rebound in front for a critical goal 2:41 into the third, the captain's fifth of the playoffs.
Now down three goals, the Rangers started to melt down with former Devil Mike Rupp once again taking out his frustration on the team that drafted him. After Rupp took a slashing penalty, he astonishingly unloaded on former teammate and friend Brodeur, sucker-punching him after the whistle and starting an altercation that led to three seperate misconducts - Rupp, Stu Bickel and the Devils' Ryan Carter. Obviously the Rangers got the worst of that mess with Rupp taking a double minor as a result of the two seperate penalties. Clearly Rupp has a bone to pick with the Devils' franchise, feeling as if we stunted his career here and he should have been more than a fourth liner. This isn't the first time he's taken out his frustration on his former team, nearly decapitating Jay Pandolfo a couple of years ago when Rupp was still in Pittsburgh, among other offenses.
During that whole exchange for reasons only known to him, Tortorella started another screaming match with Pete DeBoer on the Devils' bench, despite the fact it was his player who started that whole mess. Clearly they don't like each other, probably because DeBoer (unlike other coaches) isn't afraid to call Tortorella out for his hypocrisy. Honestly I used to be a big fan of Torts. Good coach, fiery...but I've lost a lot of respect for him this year. It's not as if it's the first time his team's gooned it up against us when losing. Just YouTube his famous 'we know what we did' press conference when Torts was still with Tampa and they gooned it up after a convincing Devils win in Game 5 in a 2007 first-round series. Amazingly, Torts put the blame for that whole mess tonight on the refs for calling the initial penalty on Rupp.
Conversely, DeBoer took a pass on commenting about that whole mess, saying that Marty could take care of himself and responding to whether that incident would give us more fuel for the rest of the series, he said matter of factly that playing for a Stanley Cup was more than enough fuel. Even after the Rupp mess, things remained testy as Carl Hagelin took back-to-back penalties, including one that gave us a minute and twenty seconds on the five on three. Perhaps the only thing I didn't like about the Devils' game was their willingness to take their foot off the gas and not go for a fourth goal with numerous power play chances in the third. Being content to run off clock made things more interesting than they needed to be late when Brodeur gave up a soft goal from the point to Ruslan Fedotenko with 5:05 left to cut the lead to 3-1. It really is puzzling how Brodeur manages to make great reflex saves on bang-bang plays in front, but can't stop point shots in this series.
Fortunately the Rangers got no closer, with Parise sealing it on an empty-netter that went the length of the ice at 18:31. Ponikarovsky and Del Zotto took matching roughing penalties with twelve seconds left, but that only ended the on-ice chippiness. Will Rupp face a suspension for his cheap shot on Brodeur? Personally I thought he should have been ejected right there, and it definitely merits a suspension in my book. God forbid Torts whine some more about another suspension though. At least he talked for more than a minute and a half after a loss today, what a shocker.
Like DeBoer though, I'd rather focus on the series itself. With at least two competitive games remaining on Wednesday and Friday, the series really is simple...the Devils need to keep playing the way they're playing and continue to find ways to beat Lundqvist. Brodeur needs to step up his game even more. Statistically he's playing a fine series, but giving up a soft goal a game isn't going to cut it when we need to win a 1-0, 2-1 game, which I'm sure will have to happen at some point. Whatever happens, it'll be fun or excruciating depending on your point of view.