Tonight, the New Jersey Devils finally picked up a win in overtime over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 5-4. On the train ride home, I began to wonder a lot about what it is that I just saw. Which angle do I take about what transpired at the Rock? Do I sound like a sour winner, or do I focus more on how the Devils actually got the scoring they haven't seen recently to win? The fans left the Rock with a mixed reaction from what I overheard en route to Newark Penn Station and on my way home on the train itself.
Ultimately, I believe this game was a good measuring stick for whether you're an optimistic fan or an pessimistic fan. For more on that, please continue reading at the jump. If you'd like to see the stats or boxscore from tonight's game, check out NHL.com's recap. For a quick take from the opposing side, witness the frustration at Pension Plan Puppets of being so close, yet so far from victory.
For the optimist, you're happy to see the offense score 5 goals. The Devils pounded Jonas Gustavsson with scoring chances, sent him chasing after the third Devils goal, and ultimately beat Vesa Toskala twice for the win. Given that the Devils have struggled to score more than 2 in a game for most of the last two weeks, this is something to praise. In recent games it was bad, where either they shoot a lot but the goalie was just too good, or they struggled to get the puck on net. For the first 40 minutes of the game, the Devils didn't just up shots, but quality shots over and over.
You are thinking of writing love letters to Zach Parise for how he dominated Toronto tonight. His statline is evidence enough 9 shots (!!!), 2 goals, 2 assists, and could have had 4 or more goals tonight. He was everywhere and there was little Toronto could do to stop him. You're enjoying how well Dainius Zubrus played tonight, using his body to set up plays (both Parise goals), 3 shots on net, 20:37 of ice time, finishing a sweet cross-ice pass from Travis Zajac for a goal, and keeping up with Zajac and Parise. He was moved off that line to boost the fourth line according to Jacques Lemaire as reported by Tom Gulitti; and the fourth line stopped being victimized. It's a shame there wasn't an isolated camera on him, a 20:37 long DVD could have been made of his performance titled "Zubrus: At His Best." He was sensational. You're ecstatic about everything Zajac did tonight his game-winning goal and 3 assists with the possible exception of his faceoffs (9 for 19). You're pleased to see that not every goal came from that first line of ZZZ, Patrick Davis scored his first goal of his NHL career off a loose puck. A goal that extended a Devils lead back to two goals in the third and restored momentum to New Jersey after Colton Orr's breakaway strike.
You're especially happy at the fact that it was the Devils power play who sealed the win - with an actual, set-up shot through a Zubrus-sizes screen. It wasn't a fluke, it was a clutch goal. The first power play of the game wasn't bad, Gustavsson was the main reason why they didn't score. And the penalty killing units were great. But that overtime PPG sure was great to see. Sure, the game had some serious pitfalls, but getting a win was important and the goals scored should boost the confidence of the team. The forwards got goals, the team shot well with 31 shots, the power play converted in a big situation, and the team got a win.
The pessimist would say not so fast, sweetheart. While a win is good, the performance left a sour taste in your mouth. The Devils may have played a solid game for the first 40 minutes, but they started off sluggish and the offense really didn't start pouring it on until after Carl Gunnarsson scored from long range - his first NHL goal. Once again, the Devils give up the first goal of the game. Once again, it's off a deflection; the puck was tipped by Rod Pelley's stick to get that elevation that beat Martin Brodeur. Once again, it was a play where the defense should have done a better job clearing the puck in the first place. They were just fortunate that Toronto's defense was so bad against the Parise-Zajac-Zubrus line and momentum shifted New Jersey's way.
In the second period, you noticed a defense making some sloppy decisions. For the most part, another player would make a good recovery play or Brodeur would make a good save. Yet, this team gave up two breakaways to Colton Orr. The first was stopped by a great hustle play by Colin White. The second saw Orr beat past Johnny Oduya and Mark Fraser (the closer man) to beat Brodeur. Really, Marty? Really, fourth line? Really, Fraser-Oduya? COLTON ORR ON A BREAKAWAY FOR A GOAL? Awful. All of that was all on you all. It put the Leafs right back in the game at 3-2 and thankfully Davis got his first NHL goal to swing momentum back. It never should have happened. Colton Orr? When the Devils play the Rangers next week, are they going to gift Donald Brashear one just to top how bad that was? Seriously, no wonder Lemaire moved Zubrus away from that awesome first line, he had to salvage the fourth.
Then there was that third period. A third period performance worthy of being recorded on a DVD titled, "How to Blow a Lead in a Hockey Game." Sure, the second period had some sloppy moments but that was far and away better then the garbage that was the Devils' third period. In recent play the Devils have had some bad games, but that third period stunk up worse than a dumpster full of dirty diapers on a hot summer day. Instead of continuing to pressure the Leafs on offense and dominate that neutral zone, the Devils struggled to make clearances in their own zone. The offense couldn't keep the Toronto squad honest or consistently to attempt to expand their lead with Vesa Toskala the NHL's leading sieve in net. More and more Devils were subjected to longer shifts in their own end, leading to more and more botched clearances, botched passes, and a cycle of the Leafs collecting the puck in the neutral zone to go back on offense. To call it sloppy would be an insult to the adjective sloppy.
Amazingly, Toronto struggled to do anything with this possession at first. They had the puck, but they couldn't get it on net. They really couldn't. They would miss shots (10), have shots blocked (13), and could only really build on momentum from the Devils not able to make a proper breakout play. The offensive rushes that just burned through Toronto in the first two periods disappeared. Then, just shy of 5 minutes left in the game, Bryce Salvador, who otherwise was doing fine tonight, gave the Leafs a gift: a lifeline. A turnover right in front of Marty, and an easy goal for Alexei Ponikarovsky. Once again, the Devils let the Leafs back into it completely unnecessarily and of their own fault.
Did that wake up the Devils? Was there a response of a goal like there was after Gunnarsson's slap shot and Orr's breakaway? Was there even a timeout called by Lemaire to have the team refocus? No, no, and no! The Devils didn't change their style. Some thought it was a trap, but traps don't allow this crap to happen. They just sat back and hoped to make defensive stops and ride out the game. While it's not always true in sport, if you generally do the same thing over and over, you shouldn't be surprised if you get the same result. And wouldn't you know it, that's what happened! Late in the game, the Devils fail to clear the puck (what a surprise!), Tomas Kaberle fires it on net, Ponikarovsky deflects it down, and Broduer makes a save. Meanwhile, Matt Stajan clears himself away from Andy Greene, parks himself right in front of the net with Johnny Oduya behind him, and Stajan had an easy put-back goal. The Leafs equalized and Devils fans - who were for some unknown and likely dumb reason was doing the wave (started by some drunken idiots in Section 3) - were stunned. Sure, but given how they played, it certainly wasn't a surprise. Martin Brodeur had this to say about it, as reported by Tom Gulitti in this post-game post:
"For some reason, especially in this building, we always have weird games against these guys," "Brodeur said. "I think we thought the game was over almost. You could tell with the intensity. We didn’t have any more forecheck. They were forechecking. We turned the puck over a bunch and it was kind of a tough break on Sal that he coughs it up right on the guy’s stick in front of the net. From there, it was only a one-goal game. We turned the puck over again and it ends up in the net."
Weird? That wasn't weird. They were easily preventable turnovers You (as in the team) played terrible hockey in the third period and even a team as bad as Toronto figured out how to capitalize on it, with plenty of help from the Devils defense.
A two goal lead wasted to one of the worst teams in the league. Two periods of offense carrying the day nearly thrown away by some awful defending. It wasn't even the usual suspects of Mike Mottau or Colin White; Johnny Oduya had a poor day in general being witness to 3 goals against. Mark Fraser looked like a Leaf defender out there. And the normally solid pairing of Greene and Salvador were victims of their own design at points. No matter who you point the finger at and regardless of the overtime winner, this game should not have went to overtime at all. The Devils blew a lead and against a better team, they would have lost it outright. Based on that third
Speaking of poor days, what about the forwards not named Parise, Zubrus, Zajac, or Davis? OK, Brian Rolston did something. But Dean McAmmond was a non-factor. Nick Palmieri didn't contribute much. Rob Niedermayer and Jay Pandolfo showed the Rock why they're regarded as defensive players. Rod Pelley didn't do much in his return to action and he saw Dainius Zubrus on his line eventually because his unit did little. Ultimately, the Devils won this game on the strength of their best players and once again, all opposition teams have to do is focus on that one line and the rest will take care of itself. Defensive breakdowns are lethal against anyone and who knows how bad it could have been if the Devils were facing a good team, like, say, the Los Angeles Kings, to pick a random team.
In my opinion, that's how each would have seen the game. Here's the embedded highlight video from tonight's game from NHL.com. See for yourself and think about how you see the game.
(By the way, you may have noticed there's a nifty new widget on the right side of the screen from NHL.com. You can view video highlights from games and other site content without leaving ILWT. For the purposes of future recaps, I'll still put in the embedded videos here for easy reference; but by all means, let me know if you'd rather just use the widget.)
In my opinion, I'm somewhere in the middle and perhaps that's where most fans are about tonight's game. I think it goes without saying that the offense needs to build on this and the defense needs to avoid these costly turnovers. I'm also somewhat worried about Sunday as the Devils will face a strong Kings team that has been playing very well as of late. If the Devils fall back to earlier habits, that could be one ugly game.
Thanks to Steve for the GameThread and thanks to all of you who comment and read it and this recap. Please share with us what you felt about tonight's game in the comments, along with your thoughts, concerns, and questions.