OT Heroics by Ilya Kovalchuk Leads New Jersey Devils to First Win; 1-0 Over the Buffalo Sabres

For the second straight game, the New Jersey Devils would play tonight's game with a shorthanded roster. Before the game, reported in this post by Tom Gulitti, John MacLean emphasized that it was not an issue:

"It only becomes a point if you let it become a point," MacLean said. "We’re not going to let it be an excuse."

You certainly couldn't argue it was a problem in tonight's game.  The New Jersey Devils played their most complete game yet in this young season, and not coincidentally, earned their first win of the season against the Buffalo Sabres.   They came out aggressive on offense in the first period, responded well to Buffalo's surges in the second period, and only really held back in the third period.   The game required overtime, but not a whole lot of it as Ilya Kovalchuk scored 53 seconds in to ensure the win.  

I am biased, but I felt the Devils truly deserved to win this one.  They limited Buffalo's scoring chances; they've created plenty of their own; they outshot the Sabres overall the whole game; they were perfect on the penalty kill and accomplished more than Buffalo on the power play; and not once did they panic. The defense, still with three young defenders, didn't have a period or a set of shifts of nightmarish turnovers of poor coverage. The forwards got past the blueline early and often, as well as being responsible in their own end.  Martin Brodeur wasn't shelled and stopped everything to boot.  Look at the game summary and event summary from NHL.com, and I think it's clear one team was better than the other.

For a Buffalo Sabres' perspective, please check out Die by the Blade.  As usual, the game deserves further detail and that comes after the jump.  Also after jump: embedded videos of the game's highlights from NHL.com as well as one for Kovalchuk's goal. Not because it won the game or it was his first of the season, but because it was a sensational one-timer.

Here's the game highlight video from NHL.com:

That's a lot of saves.  The media at the game gave Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur the first and second stars of the game, respectively, and I think that's fair.  When it's 0-0 at the end regulation, the goaltenders definitely had good nights.  The first period was the worst for Buffalo fans, as the Devils constantly pinned the Sabres back in their own end and got 15 shots on Miller. The New Jersey Devils did what I wanted to see - penetrate the blueline repeatedly - and didn't wait to storm the Sabres.  The Sabres only had one on Brodeur and one shot hit the post in response.  Miller had to be a monster and he was.    While the Sabres came out with a lot more vigor in the second period and even outshot the Devils 15-11, that meant Miller still had plenty of pressure to deal with.   Most Sabres fans would probably be pleased if their defense allowed 26 shots in a game; but not in 40 minutes.

Miller got a bit of relief in the third period, when the Devils only put up 8 shots on him.  Though, the Devils still got some rushes and missed the net a few times, so Miller still had to be prepared. Even late, when the visitors held back a bit, they managed to string off a late counter attack where a rebound attempt by Dainius Zubrus (or was it David Clarkson) got through his legs only to hit the post and just drop down.  

The whole point of this is that Ryan Miller brought his A+ game tonight.  He was the key reason the Devils didn't blow the Sabres out of their own building.   In a way, it's laudable that the Devils didn't get down on themselves because of Miller.  It's tempting to get frustrated after not scoring in a 15-shot first period or on 3 power plays (with 6 shots total) or on other scoring chances.   The Devils certainly didn't give up in the game going forward, and the Kovalchuk goal was a great reward for it.

Speaking of the goal, here's a video of Kovalchuk's blast - complete with slow-motion replays from the MSG+ feed:

The video largely speaks for itself, but I really want to highlight the assists on this goal anyway.   Notice how important Jamie Langenbrunner is on this play, it all begins with him.  He wins the puck in the neutral zone with a big check on Derek Roy, does not give it to a crossing Kovalchuk, and trusts Matt Taormina enough to take it in.   Sometimes secondary assists aren't crucial to a play, but Langenbrunner's was vital on this one.   Speaking of assists, congratulations to Matt Taormina in getting his first NHL point.   What an important one at that.  He takes it in deep, always risky for a defenseman much less a rookie in 4-on-4, and he fought hard to keep Andrej Sekera from taking the puck or knocking it away.  He sees Kovalchuk swing into the circle and makes the right choice to give it to him.

Then Kovalchuk just let loose with a blistering one-timer.  I don't think anyone does (or should) fault Ryan Miller. He did far too much tonight to be blamed on not stopping a near-impossible shot to stop.  But the assists on that play highlighted a big flaw in Buffalo's game tonight.

A lot of times tonight, the Devils were able to get past the Buffalo blueline and set up plays deep in Buffalo's territory.  The Sabres' did a poor job in preventative defense. There were turnovers behind the center line. The Devils broke down their coverage well, and even if they cornered a player along the sideboards - the puck carrier usually had an open man for an easy pass.  The shot difference of 35 to 24 really drives that point home. What I thought the Sabres did do incredibly well was reactive defense.  Miller made a lot of tough saves, but the guys in front of him did an excellent job in preventing the Devils to getting to any rebounds or getting clear shots at them.  If the Devils got a rush, it wasn't uncommon for a Sabre to intervene at the last moment to turn what would be a shot on goal into a shot deflected into the glass.

What made Buffalo's woes worse on preventative defense, made them more susceptible to guys in white charging ahead with the puck, was their offense's inability to move the puck consistently.   Devils fans know all too well what happens when a team struggles to string two passes together on offense.   Give a lot of credit to the Devils defense. They blocked a lot of passes, they got in the way of a lot of shots (18 officially), they got sticks in passing lanes, they had bodies in the slot, and they closed off the Sabres from getting many rebounds.

The biggest feather in their cap will be the 1-shot first period; but they held tough throughout the whole game.  The Devils forwards, as expected, did a strong job on backchecking. I especially noticed Adam Mair helping out quite a bit (he had a fine debut); and Rod Pelley and Patrik Elias were especially good on the PK.  I think everyone did a fine job assisting the defenders.  This isn't to say that Martin Brodeur wasn't tested at all.  He earned his 111th career shutout, for sure. But let's just say he didn't have to do anything super-human tonight.  

Going back to the bigger picture, tonight really was the most complete game the Devils played so far this season.  As such, there are so many laudable performances to point out. I already brought up Kovalchuk with his goal along with 4 shots and 24:22; and Brodeur had a shutout, of course.  There was also Zach Parise; who more than showed up, he pounded the puck repeatedly.  He led the team with 8 shots - yes, 8 - in his 23:54 of work. Travis Zajac went 8 for 15 on draws, got tagged on a crap retalitation call (a shove to Patrick Kaleta after Kaleta headbutted him) and was a conduit for Parise and Kovalchuk throughout the night.  Yeah, the ZIP line played well.

Jason Arnott did not play nearly as much (15:36) but had another solid game with 2 shots, a few good set ups, and even won 4 out of 7 faceoffs.   David Clarkson had a smattering of hits, put up 3 shots, and the only spot on his record was a goaltender interference call in the first period.   You also have to give love to Taormina for not looking at all out of place next to Colin White (another fine game for the #3 defenseman) for 20ish minutes.  Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder were playing like a top pairing, putting up big minutes and not causing any Devils supporter a lot of concern when they were out there - a first in this young season.  So many choices that I wish I had a Corsi chart for this game to at least see who drove the most Devils' action tonight.

Maybe it would be easier if I listed who on New Jersey I felt didn't do so well?  Well, I didn't like how Mark Fraser fought in the first period, shortening the Devils' bench for 5 minutes.  But he and Alexander Urbom (who got 17:55 and a little PP time) actually were decent, so I can't say they were bad.  

Oh, did I mention the Devils did all of this - the more consistent attack, the smart defending, the shutout - with only 16 skaters tonight?

As for Buffalo, outside of Miller, I'm not really sure if there were any players I'd praise outside of Derek Roy.  He managed to get 4 shots on net, had 4 blocked, squeezed his stick along with the rest of the Sabres for 20:57, and got checked by Langenbrunner in the beginning of the game winning goal tonight.  Given that he was coming into tonight's game hot, it's yet another feather in the Devils' cap that he came away with nothing.

The Devils do go back to New Jersey with 2 points.  The team should be more relieved, more confident, and generally in a better move going forward. Winning will do that.  With Brian Rolston out with a sports hernia, they'll even get a full roster for Friday's game.  Things may start be looking up for the New Jersey Devils hockey club.

Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread who commented about tonight's game, and of course, thank you for reading this recap. Please feel free to share your answers (Namely: Who did you feel was the best Devil tonight?), feelings, criticisms, compliments, and other thoughts in the comments.

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