Friday, May 4, 2012
Kovalchuk returns, leads Devils to another thrilling OT win
Before Game 3, the story was would Ilya Kovalchuk play or wouldn't he? And just how effective could he possibly be if the story floated by the Star Ledger's Rich Chere was true about Kovy's mystery injury being a herniated disc? Granted, that might be the third different 'theory' on why Kovy's looked like he's skating with a two-ton weight on his back - but whatever the case, his play in the postseason had been increasingly a concern.
Yet after missing Game 2, there was Kovy ready to go after rest and work with the doctors and trainers. Not only was he ready to go, but he made an impact befitting of his star status, scoring a goal and coming up with two assists - including a beautiful feed to Alexei Ponikarovsky for the game-winner 17:21 into OT of a back-and-forth Game 3 last night at the Prudential Center. For their collective efforts, Ponikarovsky got the first star and Kovy the second star and adulation which he's never experienced in his two and a half seasons as a Devil.
Heading into the arena, I was anxious to experience an atmosphere the likes of which we haven't yet seen in Newark. After all, this is already the deepest postseason run the Devils have made since moving to the Rock. And the crowd didn't dissapoint, loud and towel-waving from the opening faceoff (not to mention at least 90% Devils fans, after some worrying from people in our fanbase that the Flyer fans would 'invade' Newark this year). I could do without some of the super-loud sound that if anything, drowns out the crowd noise and gives us all headaches but that's what you get at most big games these days.
At least most of the music is good, thanks to part-time deejays Zach Parise and Danius Zubrus (who've apparently branched out from just picking the pre-game music to picking some of the in-game stuff as well), and the fan experience team did a good job by adding numerous Devil-Flyer playoff clips to their montages throughout the game. Not to mention a jab at Philly's most famous fictional character Rocky Balboa - showing clips of Sylvester Stallone getting his block knocked off, culminating in the knockout by Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Rocky III lol. As a Rocky fan myself I was chuckling and at the same time asking was that really neccesary haha.
On the ice however, things didn't start out as swimmingly - as a slow first five-ten minutes culminated in a Brayden Schenn power play goal at 6:08, off a feed from playoff pest Danny Briere. Things picked up when Zubrus had a monster two-minute shift, leading the way in some nice cycling work with Petr Sykora and others. It didn't result in a score, but Zubrus and company got a nice ovation at the end of play and it got the Devils into the game, I felt.
Fittingly, it was Zubrus who wound up drawing a penalty on his next shift that led to a Devils power play which would even the score when Elias hesitated, then fired a wrister through traffic past Ilya Bryzgalov for his third playoff goal of the year at 12:33, after assists from Marek Zidlicky and Kovalchuk - already starting to make me look silly for publicly second-guessing the decision to start him. Just twenty seconds later, it would be Kovalchuk who got on the board with his fourth goal of the postseason - off a nice feed from Travis Zajac, who somehow wound up drawing all three defenders to him before feeding #17 with a nice drop pass, and Kovalchuk took it from there beating Bryzgalov with another patient wrist shot. Ponikarovsky got an assist as well, a slight hint of what was to come.
After the Devils controlled the rest of the period, the Flyers came out determined to even the score in the second period...which they did, when a defensive breakdown led to another wide-open one-timer, this one from Matt Carle at 4:44 off a pass from Jakub Voracek. It was at this point that the referreeing started to get on my nerves, calling Adam Larsson for a penalty when it looked as if Briere dove (shocker), then far more egregiously whistling Kovy for a delay-of-game penalty, when a clearing attempt glanced off Flyer forward Matt Read and into the stands.
This is one of the reasons I hate the rule, you're giving a tremendous disadvantage to a team for what amounts to a judgement call most of the time. If anything, you should treat throwing the puck in the stands like an icing, enough of an advantage to matter but not too much to kill a fly with a machine gun. If you are going to have the rule though, then the officials can't be liberal with calling it, they have to be absolutely sure it didn't hit off a player or the glass. When he saw the replay in the box, Kovy went ballistic...fortunately it didn't matter when a goaltender interference penalty nullified both the power play and a potential Flyers goal. Even that was mild compared to what was to come later in the game, however.
Momentum continued rocking back and forth in the third, with the Devils edging in front after he fed the captain at the side of the net, and Parise stuffed the puck past Bryzgalov for his fourth playoff goal at 7:29 allowing us to dream the dream of going up 2-1 in the series. Zidlicky continued his strong game with his second assist of the night on the captain's goal. Minutes later, Kovy came inches from ending it when he hit the crossbar with a shot (even more gut-wrenchingly, he put his fist in the air thinking he'd scored)...then as so often happens in hockey, you pay for a near miss at one end on the other end. Of course, it was Briere who scored (and again with his foot, though this time legally) at 11:04 to tie the game.
After a tense final nine minutes of regulation, the Devils found themselves in their fourth OT in the span of five playoff games. Things began questionably, when Elias was clearly interfered with and high-sticked but there was no call. You figured, oh well the refs are clearly letting them play now at least since there were no penalties in the third either. Yet, that non-call was exacerbated further when Zubrus got called on a weak boarding at 8:23 that gave the Flyers another OT power play. After somehow killing that off, the Devils had to kill another penalty when Bryce Salvador threw the puck over the glass (this time there was little doubt, unfortunately). Despite not having their leading defenseman on the ice - Salvador led the team with 31:43 icetime on the night, a full two minutes more than Andy Greene and Zidlicky - the Devils managed to kill one more power play from a dangerous Flyer unit.
Finally, the momentum shifted toward the Devils after the second penalty kill and they started to pepper Bryzgalov. Yet, it was a faulty line change that led to a Devils' win, as Kovy somehow eyed two Flyers coming off the ice and an open Ponikarovsky more than a hundred feet up ice despite having his back mostly turned to the play. Like a shark, Kovy quickly turned and pounced on the opportunity, feeding Poni with a tape-to-tape pass that led to a two-on-one with Poni and Greene. Poni did the work himself, shooting the puck on net, then somehow swatting a bouncing rebound past Bryzgalov to send most of the 17,625 into a frenzy (and me into a tired state of relief).
At that point, little else mattered. It didn't matter that the refs screwed us with bad calls, non-calls and strange calls all night (a couple of offsides were highly questionable as well), or that I was so out of it I nearly forgot my jacket going out of the arena - thankfully the guy next to me got it and found me down the hall. Even the fact I didn't get home till 12:30 because of train connections or woke up earlier than I wanted to was nothing more than a slight annoyance. All's well - at least till Sunday night - when your team wins a big playoff game, and you can soak in the celebration at the arena.