Ilya Kovalchuk's 2 Goals, Martin Brodeur's 113th Shutout Carry N.J. Devils to 3-0 Win Over Phoenix Coyotes

Ilya Kovalchuk was great tonight. His 2 goals powered the Devils on their 3-0 win against Phoenix. Here, he's heading up ice with the puck. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

The New Jersey Devils didn't give up two goals in the first two minutes of the game tonight.  The New Jersey Devils didn't get completely run over in the second period.  The New Jersey Devils didn't get behind in the game tonight. The New Jersey Devils did not disappoint the denizens at the Rock and the Devils faithful all around the world on this chilly Wednesday evening.

Nay, the New Jersey Devils were not only victorious, but decidedly so over the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Devils won 3-0, thanks to two goals by Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur's 113th career shutout.  Kovalchuk had a fine 20 Kovalchuk's dual lamplighters was the first time Kovalchuk scored more than one goal in a game in a Devils uniform, a total of 61 games.  Both were gorgeous one-timers and well worth checking out in the NHL.com highlight video after the jump.  Martin Brodeur was more than solid tonight. He stopped all 29 shots on net, only needed the post to save him once, and wasn't left out to dry too much.  Though on a few occasions, he somehow got a stop on a Phoenix shot that one would expect to go in given the circumstances.  Another reason to check out the highlight video, as those stops were spectacular.

The two stars on the team dazzled and I give them their due as they earned it tonight.  It wasn't the sharpest of games, but the Devils were less sloppy than the Coyotes and so they reaped the rewards.  Despite leading most of the game, shots were even 29-29 overall and Phoenix only led in 5-on-5 shots at 25-21.  The Devils were once again perfect on the PK and solid on the power play, which also produced the rare 5-on-3 power play goal. For the first time in a while, I can confidently say that the Devils were the better team tonight.  

I'm not going to use the "T-word" for this game, and I don't recommend that you do since this team has yet to build on any win in a positive fashion this season.   However, embrace the victory.  It snapped a 5 game losing streak and gave the Devils fans something to smile about.   I have additional thoughts on tonight's game, including what I felt about Anssi Salmela's first game back, which line got destroyed, and more after the jump. For a Phoenix take, please visit Five for Howling.

Here's the game summary of tonight's game. The important takeaway here are the shot counts for each period.  Notice that the Devils only got out-shot by 3 in a second period while up 2-0.  That's pretty impressive.  Granted, getting out of the second period with no goals allowed is pretty much a win of sorts in my book, given how bad they have been this season.  Still, usually teams that are down 1 or 2 goals will take more initiative, play with more aggression, and therefore put up more shots. That the differential was only -3 for NJ is pretty impressive.  

That second period had stretches where it looked like most second periods.  A frustrating cycle of the Devils chasing the attacking Coyotes, somehow getting a stop in their own zone, either icing the puck or dumping it out, and then the Coyotes are attacking either by virtue of an offensive zone faceoff (icing) or having the puck back in the neutral zone (the dump) facing off with a tired squad.  Say what you want about Ilya Kovalchuk, but his tendency to carry the puck out is one of the few ways to break said cycle.   

The funny thing is that tonight, this cycle wasn't as punishing for three reasons. The first was that Devils defense played very well in front of Martin Brodeur tonight.  They blocked passing lanes well, they covered the slot effectively, defenders played conservatively enough so they aren't out of position, and they left very few rebounds for second chance shots against.  Their clearances weren't as strong; hence, the cycle.  But the defensive effort was good overall.  The second was that the Phoenix Coyotes were just out of sync. Passes missing their mark or hitting anything but a stick.  Shots getting deflected away.  Guys not in position on plays.  This was most apparent later in the second period where the Coyotes would be able to get through the neutral zone, and yet seemingly fall flat on their faces to the Devils defense.  The third was that when the Coyotes started faltering much earlier on their approaches, the Devils were able to have more possession and attack more. This meant

In my view, those three reasons stuck out as to why Phoenix didn't take the second period completely over and why the shot totals at 5-on-5 overall weren't heavily in favor of the visitors.  Quite frankly, the Devils defense was more than up to the task of handling a Coyotes squad that shot themselves in the foot.

Here is the event summary of tonight's game.  Notice the lines on New Jersey's second line: Kovalchuk with 5 (and 2 goals, an excellent night for him), Jason Arnott with 4, and Dainius Zubrus with none.  Zubrus did a lot of dirty work down low and worked quite hard in the neutral zone.  He batted down a puck in the neutral zone that led to his setting up of Kovalchuk's first goal tonight.  He didn't manage any shots on net namely because he was the guy trying to earn the puck and keep the attack going. Arnott and Kovalchuk were more than happy to be set up for the shots.   

As a result, those three forwards had positive Corsi values at 5-on-5 according to the game chart at Time on Ice. Zubrus was a +9, Arnott was a +8, and Kovalchuk had a +5. (Why only a +5? Because he had a few shifts away from this group).  To be blunt, I don't like how that line is constructed, as I question whether Zubrus and Arnott can keep up with Kovalchuk.  That said, I must give them their due; they were New Jersey's best line at 5-on-5 tonight.

The second scoring line wasn't so bad.  Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Travis Zajac combined for 6 shots on goal; though they were also out there for just as much offense by the Coyotes.  So they ended the night with -1, 0, and -1 Corsi respectively.  I did appreciate Elias' second intermission quote about how the Devils needed to be crisper with their passes.  The Devils were better than Phoenix in moving the puck, but they could have been better overall.

Also of note for New Jersey, Mark Fayne put up 3 shots and scored his first career NHL goal through a Jamie Langenbrunner screen in the first period.  Fayne's shooting definitely needs some work, but as long as it goes in, it's perfectly fine. Congratulations to him.   If you didn't notice him much beyond the goal, that's fine. That's not necessarily bad for a defenseman.  After all, Fayne only got 12:18 of ice time tonight and came out ahead in Corsi at +1. He got limited minutes but didn't make any costly errors, not a bad night for the rookie.

As for Phoenix, I see that Shane Doan and Kyle Turris registered the most shots on net for the Coyotes tonight. Interestingly enough, the head to head ice time chart for 5-on-5 play at Time on Ice shows that those two were not on the same line.   Doan put up 5 on a line with Eric Belanger (0 SOG) and Wojtek Wolski (0 SOG).  Turris put up 4 (and got absolutely robbed on one of those 4) on a line with Lee Stempniak (2 SOG) and Taylor Pyatt (1 SOG)  Clearly, both forwards were the main guys on their lines tonight.   Yet, for all their shooting, because the rest of their line wasn't as prolific and/or wasn't good in keeping the puck forward, Doan was only a +2 Corsi and +1 for Turris.  At least on Kovalchuk's line, Arnott was doing enough of something to be respected by the Phoenix D.

Also: notice who I didn't note among that group?  Ray Whitney.  The wizard was held to, well, not casting a lot of playmaking spells.  It wasn't as if John MacLean sent out Colin White and Henrik Tallinder against Whitney's line.  The head to head ice time chart shows that the top defensive pairing for NJ was used against mostly everyone - and impressively came out ahead in Corsi (+5 for White, +4 for Tallinder).

Of course, with Corsi, I now have basis for some criticism.  The third line of Mattias Tedenby, Brian Rolston, and David Clarkson was just poor tonight.  John MacLean is right to keep the defensive pairings as they are, as Anton Volchenkov can cover for his inexperience partner and Colin White.  And as much as people would want to see the forward lines stick together, this third line was just beaten on again and again at even strength.  Of all four forward lines, they were pinned back the most.  As a result, Rolston was a -7 Corsi, Clarkson was at -10, and Tedenby was at -6.  That's pretty awful. They were lucky to not have been scored upon, thanks to the defense and Brodeur.

Quite frankly, the recently-waived Brian Rolston isn't really a center. Sure, he went 4-for-7 on draws and only Zajac was better at 9-for-15.  However, his lack of speed is magnified by having Mattias Tedenby dart around everywhere.  While he's fine on the PK, at even strength, he was picked on by Phoenix forwards over and over. If you were hoping for a big performance out of him tonight, well, you didn't get it.  David Clarkson, the right wing, had a nondescript night.  His most notable action was cross-checking a Coyote amid a scrum for a loose puck late in the game.  Other than that, he was just "there."  The called up Tim Sestito at least had a big hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson and a shot on net.  Clarkson could have done more tonight than be pinned in his own end more often than not, but didn't for one reason or another.

Basically, Tedenby was the only one of the three who was useful going forward with his speed and excellent stickhandling.  He was, for all intents and purposes, held back and so he suffered as well.  Sure, his defensive game needs work, but right now he's an offensive player. Why not put him with another speedy player with fine stickhandling skills who make dangerous passes like, oh, I don't know, Ilya Kovalchuk?  Rolston or Clarkson isn't likely to keep up with Tedenby, so why not switch him with Zubrus for a few games?  

Speaking of thirds, tonight was the third hockey game Anssi Salmela has played since suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in his knee. The first two were in Albany, so tonight was his 2010-11 NHL season debut.  The word I would use to describe his game was tentative.  There were some shifts where he just seemed a bit too slow or nonaggressive in going after a puck, or he didn't process what he needed to do with it quickly enough.  He did get 2 attempts to shoot, both went wide.  This should be of no surprise since he hasn't played a NHL game since April 2010.  At least he didn't make any major errors, just little things here and there (unless I missed something huge). Plus, Salmela spent some time with New Jersey's third line tonight, so I'm not surprised he ended up as a -4 for Corsi.

Anton Volchenkov was his partner tonight.  This was a smart decision by MacLean.   Volchenkov was able to help him out quite a bit.  He did more of the grunt work, he handled the physical aspect of defending more, and it seemed he kept things as simple as possible for Salmela.  Even to the point where even with a chance to go after a loose puck by the blueline, he chose to hang back to make sure Salmela wouldn't be stuck in an odd-man situation   Clearly, Salmela is going to need more time to get back into the swing of things.  Then, he may make a fine third-pairing defenseman.  But for now, I wouldn't count on Salmela to do too much in the next few games.

Finally, here are the game highlights from NHL.com. Watch and enjoy for a change, as this time the Devils were successful.

I could go on at length about how Martin Brodeur's only pratfall was a literal one in the first period trying to play a puck, but I think the saves he made in this highlight package says it all.  He was fantastic. And Kovalchuk's goals were definite goalazos.  I felt Ilya Bryzgalov was very good tonight, and he had no chance on the three goals allowed.  Kovalchuk's blasts were just that: blasts.  I'm not sure if he even saw Fayne's shot, to be honest.  Other than that, Bryzgalov met the challenges presented to him.  Too bad the guys in front of him weren't able to produce or jump on Kovalchuk

This leads me to the overall team attack.  The Devils were most successful on offense when they carried the puck in over the blueline. They didn't resort to straight dumping and chasing. The forward would only dump it to the corner if he had no option, but rarely was this done from the neutral zone.  Even if they did resort to that, the next move wasn't always to get it to the defenseman on the point.  There were cycles at times. There were attempted shots down low and at sharp angles.   The Devils mixed up their shooting decisions enough so that the Coyotes defense were kept honest.  The Gamecast chart at ESPN shows a wide variety of shots by NJ.  That was smart by both the players and the coaching staff. 

And when the offense sputtered or the team went for a line change, the Devils slipped into a 1-2-2 regularly.  They got away from it in the second period early on, but for most of the first and third periods, the Devils attempted to trap and succeeded.  The forechecker forced a few turnovers early in the game, and helped stall Phoenix later on in the game.  Zubrus' stop was the most visible one, as it led to a goal, but the Devils forced several turnovers this way.  Again, Phoenix was sloppy tonight with their passing.  Yet, did this strategy got into their heads only to exacerbate the problem? Whatever the answer is, I hope the Devils continue to use it going forward - and in all three periods.

Lastly, more praise for the special teams.  The penalty killers were great.  The only allowed 3 shots on net over 5:14 on three chances.  They collapsed when needed, and got good clearances when the puck was loose. Even when kept in by the Phoenix D (mostly Keith Yandle), the PK units stayed the course and Brodeur was solid when necessary.  (Aside: I felt the interference call on Jamie Langenbrunner was a bit weak since I thought the captain was pushed into Bryzgalov. But it was killed, so whatever. The other two calls were legit.) 

The power play deserves some love too.  While the Devils "only" went 1-for-5, they put up 8 shots on 5 opportunities lasting 9:45.  4 of those minutes came in the third period on a double minor to Martin Hanzal for high sticking Arnott. At that point, the game was 3-0 and most of it was just good offensive possession to kill the clock and the game.  On the other PP situations, the Devils set up solid shots instead of looking for the perfect one or just throwing things on net.  They looked confident and there were some nice movement off the puck (e.g. Brian Rolston being down low, moves to screen the goalie when the puck went up high).  That's all I'm looking for on a power play as the goals will eventually come.  And one did, thanks to another blast just outside the high slot by Ilya Kovalchuk.

Now, the big question is: Will the Devils follow up this good performance with another good one or (gasp) a better one on Friday?  So far this season, the answer has been "no" after a decisive win.  It also doesn't help that the opponent was pretty sloppy.  How will the Devils do against a team that's more in sync? All I can say is we shall see.  Hopefully, this will "get the guys going" more so than any pep talk or line change or whatever else the Devils have tried so far. Emphasis on the hope.

Thanks for reading. What did you think of tonight's game?  Who did you think did well and did poorly? Do you agree that Phoenix was sloppy tonight, which contributed to their downfall?  How did you think Anssi Salmela did? What did I miss in covering this game that you felt was important? Aren't you just smiling at least a little that the 5 game losing streak has been broken? (I am.)  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.

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