Ilya Kovalchuk: Hero of the Night. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Finally. Finally. FINALLY.
The thousands of New Jersey Devils fans, including myself, were able to leave the Prudential Center with a smile on their face, a spring in their step, and a warm, somewhat fuzzy feeling inside. The thousands of Devils supporters around the world, following the game on TV, radio, and sites like this one were able to witness from afar the Devils coming from two goal deficit to win the game in thrilling fashion in overtime over the league's fellow cellar-dwellers, the Edmonton Oilers.
The Devils won 4-3 in overtime thanks to a blistering shot from Ilya Kovalchuk on the power play. Hollywood couldn't have written a better script. The criticism, the boos from his supporters, the jeers from his critics and others, all plagued Kovalchuk and the Devils on Wednesday night with the lack of scoring and losing the puck in the shootout. While I don't think he had a great game tonight; Kovalchuk managed to totally redeem himself the best way possible: scoring the team's first game winning goal of the season at home. On the power play. To quote Kovalchuk from this post game report by Tom Gulitti:
"That’s nice," Kovalchuk said of the cheers. "It’s better than last game. I appreciate that. We really need our fans."
He really wasn't the best Devil tonight. But I won't argue against any praise for the winger tonight.
Yes, the Oilers are a bad hockey team with the worst penalty killing success rate in the league. Yes, it was not good that the Devils coughed up the first two goals against and then a third in the second period. By no means was tonight a great victory. By no means there's no reason to be concerned about the team's upcoming three game road trip through Boston, Toronto, and St. Louis. That's all inconsequential right now. When you're dead last in the conference, you don't get the right to be picky about wins. The fans needed that win at the Rock, the team needed it, and they got it. For now, let us rejoice.
As usual, I have further thoughts on tonight's game. Please continue after the jump for a more detailed recap of the team's first home and win-after-trailing-for-two-periods win of the season. If you are interested in the Oilers' point of view, please visit the Copper & Blue for an eventual recap.
First and foremost, here's the game winning goal from NHL.com:
Beautiful. (And further proof why team's don't just bomb away on the power play - setting up the shot works.)
That said, let me explain why I don't think Kovalchuk was the best Devil tonight. According to the event summary at NHL.com, he played 25:30 - boosted by John MacLean double shifting him at points in the game - and only registered one shot on goal. The one he scored on. He had 3 attempts blocked and one miss, but he really wasn't taking over the game. From what I saw, it's because he went into the corners. In a way, it's good to see Kovalchuk driving into the dirty areas of the offensive zone, getting into battles along the boards, and trying to win pucks. However, I felt he did it too much tonight. He was trying to set up plays for Alexander Vasyunov (2 shots on goal) and Travis Zajac (4 shots on goal) more so than be the recipient. There are times where that's good, but he's more effective when he's the one shooting. If he was too passive on Wednesday, he was too aggressive tonight. Kovalchuk still has to find that happy medium.
Don't misunderstand me, it wasn't like Kovalchuk was terrible either. For one, there's that goal. For another, he had a fine night in terms of Corsi with a +8 per Vic Ferrari's Time on Ice Corsi charts; and his regular linemates Vasyunov (+12) and Zajac (+14) had great Corsi nights too. If I'm counting up Dennis' scoring chances correctly at mc79hockey, Kovalchuk was on the ice for 6 scoring chances for the Devils but 8 against. Overall, not a great night but the big moment shines the most.
Moving on, please look at the Corsi chart and the scoring chances by Dennis again. I'm so glad the Devils won. They had the territorial advantage at evens (to a ridiculous level for some on both sides) and put up many more scoring chances than Edmonton at even strength, in addition to outshooting them straight up (39-24) and at 5-on-5 (33-21). The Devils kept Dustin Penner quiet save for him tripping Kovalchuk in overtime, and his linemates of Andrew Cogliano and Magnus Paajavri-Svensson on chances. In addition to that line being picked on, the Devils ensured Tom Gilbert had a long night as well. Very good stuff.
At the same time, this makes me unhappy that the Devils had to come from behind at all. Here are the full highlights from the game. Pay attention to the three goals against:
You may think it's odd to fault a defense (as in a team defense) that holds a team to under 25 shots in a game, but just errors by the guys in red nearly sunk the Devils right from the get-go. Let's review:
First GA: The play begins with Jordan Eberle receiving an outlet pass to get it out of their own end. Anton Volchenkov lines up him with a telegraphed hip check. Everyone in the building knew Volchenkov was committed to it. Eberle blew past him, leaving Volchenkov to run his butt into the boards. So he's out of position. Andy Greene was initially on Zach Sortini, Dainius Zubrus goes to Eberle, leaving Colin Fraser open. Eberle's pass is awry but it gets through David Clarkson's legs to Fraser, who goes to his right, goes around a lunging Greene, takes one shot, gets his own rebound first blocked, and knocks the popped-up puck in while Greene's behind him.
Second GA: In soccer, there's a tactic called "long ball" where a player will just make a long, high pass hoping that the offensive player gets it up the field. It often doesn't work since those passes are hard to make; but the idea is to play the law of averages, figuring one will be made and that's all you need to go and score. This goal featured the same logic. Ryan Jones flips a puck high and over the neutral zone before going off on a change. Olivier Magnan-Grenier tries to glove this out of play and totally botches it. Sortini hits him after he touches it, and it falls short to the trailing Fraser. Magnan is dealing with Sortini, Matt Taormina wasn't in a position to do anything, and the Devils forwards are behind the play entirely. Fraser curls around Magnan-Sortini and fires a shot I'm sure Martin Brodeur would like back as it beat him (I think) short side. Though the play doesn't happen if Magnan bats it high, hard, to his left, or anything but soft and in front of him.
Third GA: The Devils are caught on a line change and so it's Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky versus Henrik Tallinder on a 2-on-1. Tallinder hesitates but tries to block the passing lane - and succeeds. Tallinder made a good play here. Too bad he didn't get the support he needed. Three Devils trailed the play, so it wasn't like he and Brodeur were hung out to dry. The blocked pass goes to Taylor Hall in the slot who fires it on net while Tallinder's getting up and Taormina is lunging at him. Gagner was at the right side of the crease awaiting some kind of rebound with no one to cover him. Fault either Taormina for not getting to his side or Clarkson for watching him, whatever works for you. Anyway, the uncovered one off Hall's shot, knocking the puck in mid-air past a sprawling Brodeur.
I'm focusing so much attention on the goals against because all three put the Oilers up 1-0, 2-0, and 3-1, respectively. Even if you believe the Devils offense is working closer to expected and possibly normal, these are some silly and preventable plays for the defense to allow. All it serves is to make the game that much harder for the Devils to win. I know teams make mistakes every night that lead to goals, but it's been the story of the New Jersey's defensive effort this season - and it's getting ridiculous. The Devils will not start winning games decisively until the Devils cut down on these kind of events in general.
Getting back to some good things for the Devils, there were four more firsts tonight. The first two are for Brian Rolston. Rolston played his first game back after suffering from a sports hernia. He only played 14:18 and put up only two shots on net, but he was zooming out there. Maybe I need glasses, but I swore I saw #17 instead of #12 chasing down Oilers for pucks. I'm sure a lot of it was built-up from not playing for so long, but he had a good return. The second first? Rolston scored his first goal of the season, putting back a rebound (created by a Clark-around, one of his 5 SOG in 11:29) right at the crease. It turned the game into 3-2 late in the second, so it was important as it kept hope alive.
The third and fourth firsts go to two rookie forwards. Congratulations to Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Vasyunov for scoring their first goals in their NHL career. They weren't bad or meaningless goals either.
Zajac Elias set up Patrick Elias Zajac across the area behind the net, Elias Zajac saw Vasyunov cutting and gave him a perfect pass to one-time past Devan Dubnyk. It was the Devils' first goal of the game and then cut the lead down to 2-1 in the first period. Tedenby's goal was the Devils' first power play goal of the night, deflecting Andy Greene's wrist shot from the center point to tie up the game at 3-3 in the third period. The equalizer would hold
Let me take a little time to praise Tedenby. He was all over the place tonight. While he wasn't the fastest player on the ice (Taylor Hall hung with him at times), he was in constant motion and was able to shift really quickly. Agile would be the operative word, in my opinion. Tedenby wasn't afraid of whatever physical play the Oilers tried to impose both during play and after a whistle (e.g. Ryan Whitney shoving the rookie into a pile from behind after a freeze by Dubnyk). No, he fired when he had the chance, he got 5 on net - including a free look in the slot on a rebound where Dubnyk absolutely robbed him with a sprawling glove save. Did it discourage him? No, the rookie put his head down (figuratively) and continued to work. I was really impressed by the 2008 first round draft selection and I still feel he may have been the best Devil on the ice tonight.
Oh, by the way, Tedenby was on the same line with Jason Arnott and Patrik Elias, who put up 3 and 6 shots respectively. That's right, the Devils' second line combined for 14 of New Jersey's 34 shots tonight. Opposing defenses, if you want to focus on Kovalchuk's line that's fine - just beware of the unit behind them.
Speaking of the opposition, let me be frank: they did well enough to get the lead, but everyone in that locker room should be praising Devan Dubnyk for having a great performance. Not that it means anything to me, but let me ask the Oilers fans reading this: How is he not Edmonton's starting goaltender? He got pounded with shots, yet he didn't allow constant rebounds like Nikolai Khabibulin has done this season or give up total softies. The rebounds he did allow weren't big, gaping ones; mostly short ones that Rolston capitalized on and Zubrus nearly did near the end of the first period. Chalk them up to bad breaks and some bad defensive coverage (allowing 39 total shots means it definitely wasn't good). I don't care what the Oilers brass thinks of Khabibulin, I'm convinced from tonight that Dubnyk should the team's #1 for the time being.
One last mea culpa: the power play. It worked. Yes, Edmonton came into this game (and will leave it) with the worst PK rate in the league. If there was one team that needed a bad PP to beat up on, then this was the team. They actually switched from their diamond to a small box on the first one, but reverted on the second. Odd. Their triangle wasn't so bad in OT, for what it's worth. But back to the Devils. Whatever Adam Oates and the coaching staff decided on how to approach the PP in OT, it worked great. I must give Oates credit tonight. The power play may have gotten some breaks with the deflection and Kovalchuk putting up a monster of a shot; but the team was calm in possession and moved the puck fairly well. They looked like a competent PP on all three, and scoring two was important for the game along with the PP going forward. Well done, Mr. Oates.
And well done to the Devils. They snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and the Devils faithful have something to smile about for now. The next few games will determine whether this was a turning point or just a respite from the losses. In the meantime, rejoice!
Thank you for reading all of this. Thank you to all of the commenters in the Gamethread. Now it's your turn. What did you take out of tonight's game? Who did you think did well? Who did you think didn't do well? What would you like to see different in the future; what can New Jersey improve? Please leave your answers and all other thoughts you may have for tonight's game in the comments.