Coming Back for Eighths

About midway through the third period, I had my post-game thoughts already set.  An end to the streak as the Devils go back in time to 1997-98. A time where they would do a lot of the little things, win a lot of the battles for the puck, get a good amount of power plays, and put a ton of shots on net - only to be thwarted from victory by a severe lack of finishing.  I still hoped for a Devils win, but I already had this starting to pan out in my mind.

That's what you had going into the middle of the third period.  Then, I had to change my thoughts - and for the better.

Let me set it up for you.  At this point of the game, the Devils had just put over 30 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury; the Penguins didn't even have 15. Worse, earlier in the period, Evgeni Malkin picked up the puck on a block, powered in, and powered a shot through Scott Clemmensen's legs.  Poor Clemmensen.  Only a relatively small amount of pucks on net all game, and the backbreaking goal trickles through the five hole!  He should have stopped it, it was a pretty soft goal to give up. Perhaps the second soft one, though Sidney Crosby - sprung into space by Malkin and Johnny Oduya getting burned - just blazed a shot into a mere hole for Pittsburgh's second goal in the first.  Maybe that wasn't soft.  But if a shot has to trickle through the legpads to get in, it tells me that it should have been stopped. It wasn't a good night for Clemmensen.  According to NHL.com, he's up for a Fan Fav award for last week. I certainly wouldn't use this game as a reason as to why he should be considered for this week!

But it was a good night for the defense.  A very good night, even.  The penalty killers killed all three of Pittsburgh's power plays. (Note to Bobby Holik: Easy there, two of those were your fault)  They closed down on Malkin and Crosby well enough, except for those two instances I just mentioned.  Further proof that they can and will burn teams for goals when given half a chance.  Still, overall, we're talking allowing the Pittsburgh Penguins to only 16 shots.  Alas, they put three in.  If Clemmensen was in better position and/or kept his legs closed a half-second sooner, perhaps it'd be only one goal (Maxime Talbot's deflection).

Alas, the Devils only had one goal mid-way through the third.  Bobby Holik picked it up down low and dashed it through Fleury's legs.  And that was it.  Despite a 19 shot first period, with many loose pucks, rebounds, glancing shots to the far post., and three power plays.  Despite a 7 shot second period, where the Devils didn't make as much havok, but Travis Zajac hit the crossbar on a shorthanded attempt.   And so far in the third, despite all the puck possession, and increased vigor of each line, nothing was breaking through to the net.

Then Petr Sykora got caught hooking.  He must have also said something about Mrs. Marouelli or Mrs. Walsh, because he then got a second minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.  A 4 minute power play! Thank you, Sykora! A time where the Devils need a goal to stay alive.  To redeem all the missed chances!  To justify that the Devils were truly the better team, as evidenced by the shot count, the forced and unforced turnovers by Pittsburgh, and the battles along the boards the Devils kept winning.  To conquer the old, familiar feeling of a lack of pucks hitting the back of the net dooming the Devils.  To prevent an end to their streak.

The Devils only needed 4 seconds to succeed.

Dainius Zubrus won the faceoff, Brian Gionta tossed it back, and Brendan Shanahan continues to justify his signing with a rocket shot to the top of the net.  Instant power play goal, and it's 3-2.  The fans in the stands are ecstatic, that finally a goal is scored by the Devils. The Devils are now brimming with confidence.  Yet, the old results return: Fleury continued having a great night with more saves, the Penguins playing desperate defending, and the Devils fans getting more restless.  At least the Devils got within one.  Less than a minute left, the Devils get Fleury to hold it to force an offensive faceoff.  Clemmensen's pulled, the Penguins win the faceoff, but the Devils pound the boards to win back the puck, it comes around to Jamie Langenbrunner. He's down low, he steps in, and he backhands the equalizer with just over 30 second left!  The captain has been on fire this week and he is the hero of the day!  Crosby goes to the ref and talks about something!  But no matter! What drama! What excitement! What a comeback!  At least NJ would get a point out of it even if  the overtime/shootout goes awry.

But it didn't.  The Devils, carried by the momentum of the equalizer swarmed the Penguins' zone for the extra minutes.  So many open shots for the Devils.  It almost ended when, I think, Mark Eaton tossed a cupcake pass across ice. Patrik Elias intercepted it, sensed a defender nearby, and just took a shot hoping the force of the shot would beat Fleury.  It did not.   It would have been fitting for Elias to end it there. Like most of the game, the finishing wasn't there. But the following shift resulted in further possession, Travis Zajac having space on Fleury's left.  The crowd is screaming for a shot, and thankfully, Zajac didn't. He saw Jamie Langenbrunner across the ice, passes it perfectly, and Langenbrunner puts it home to earn the two points.  That completed a brace for Jamie.  His third brace in three games!  His third game winning goal this week! The game tying and the game winning goal. Oh captain, my captain!  Don't let anyone touch you, for they will get burned! The Devils faithful were jubilant that this exciting affair (eventually) went New Jersey's way.  And why not!

And so it was a 4-3 win for the New Jersey Devils in a fantastic game that I'm sure Doc Emrick loved calling.  The Devils performed much better than the Penguins, whose only area they outdid New Jersey in was in scoring on their scoring chances. They were too reliant on the counter-attack, I thought. While they nearly succeeded, choosing to not press the issue offensively with aggression was a poor choice by Michel Therrien.  That said, the Devils defensemen (and backchecking forwards) were very adept at stopping the Penguins from getting an open shot on Clemmensen.  Still, with at least Malkin and Crosby, I expected more "go" from them.  The whole team being held to a whole 2 shots in the last 24 minutes of the game (third period and overtime) is unacceptable, even if one of those was a goal.

The Devils could have easily given up on the game after the quickfire double from Pittsburgh in the first; or after Malkin's tally or after not scoring on so many shots.   But they didn't. The Devils eventually made the goals happen. That's what happens when you're hot, when you don't give up, and when you stay reslient. That's a major difference between the 2008-09 Devils and the 1997-98 Devils.  Evidence of why this team is so special so far, along with their now 8 game winning streak. And that will teach me from jumping to conclusions before the game is over.

For other thoughts: Gulitti's got the quotes from Langenbrunner about his success this week.  Frank at Pensburgh will have something up later. Pat at Igloo Dreams already has his thoughts up and he's not happy. 

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