A history of excellence has been built in New Jersey by Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils franchise. So it should come to no surprise of this team, it's fans - both casual and hardcore - that before the end of March, the New Jersey Devils have clinched their 19th birth for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It'll be the 18th playoff seeding for the Devils in 19 season, and the 13th consecutive time they've done so.
The Devils did it in a hard-fought, thrilling battle with the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. The game-winner came from Dainius Zubrus, Marty Brodeur was stellar as usual, and this team - after having some troubles late in the second and early in the third - came up big, playing a team game that was punctuated by their newest star showing that he's buying into the team concept for real.
For more information, including highlights, stats, box scores, recaps and more, head to this game's official page at NHL.com. More coming after the jump.
Things didn't seem to be getting off on the right foot for New Jersey. The Canadiens dominated play for the first two minutes. The first two shifts featured both the Parise-Elias-Langenbrunner line and the Kovalchuk-Zajac-Rolston line being pinned in the defensive zone by the Canadiens top six forwards. Things seemed grim at the beginning, as it took five and a half minutes to get a Devil shot on goal, and by then it was 6-0 Habs.
But the Devils responded, getting eight of the next nine shots, and striking first in the game eventually. Jamie Langenbrunner and Andrei Markov both took penalties a little less than six minutes in, making play go to four-on-four. About a half minute later, Roman Hamrlik was sent off for the Habs to make it 4-on-3 for the Devs, and they took advantage. A Travis Zajac shot ricocheted off Jaroslav Halak, and bounced the right way for Patrik Elias to put the puck top shelf in an empty net, making no mistake and making it 1-0 Devils.
The Devils continued to play pretty well for most of the period, with the Devils having to finish the period killing two penalties but looking good doing, as well as you can on the penalty kill I suppose. Early in the 2nd period, it was the Devs' chance to hit the power play this time, as Scott Gomez went off. After a couple of passes that nearly sent the puck out of the zone, Ilya Kovalchuk held the puck in with a cannoning drive that went off a Montreal defender, and left Jamie Langenbrunner wide open to set, turn, slap the puck and drill it under Halak's pad to make it 2-0. The Devils started the game 2-for-2 on the man advantage.
The Canadiens fought back soon after, showing this one would be a battle. They overall had the majority of the puck luck in the second, as they got a couple of goals on a couple of good bounces. The first one came at 5:15, when Gomez found Andrei Kostitsyn in the slot after a failed 3-on-1, they resurrected the offense and Kostitsyn, maybe the best Montreal forward of the night, got the goal.
The Devils spent the next 10 minutes putting things right, stablizing the game, and eventually getting their two goal cushion back. After Vladimir Zharkov found Paul Martin at the point, a Martin shot was tipped at the front of the net by Dainius Zubrus and by Halak to make it 3-1. The Devils have tried to use Zubrus on the bottom six to parlay his recent success since coming back from injury into some jump for the third and fourth lines. Tonight, it seems, he finally succeeded getting that tip in.
But the Canadiens still fought back, though they got some luck in doing it. Kostitsyn ripped a puck toward the front of the net, where it bounced of Tomas Plekanec's skate and in past Martin Brodeur to make it 3-to-2. This started a stretch in which the Habs were clearly the better team. From late in the second until about midway into the third, they had chance after chance after chance to try and get the game tied. Marty was massive, as he often is. He made save after save, and the Devils killed off a Bryce Salvador minor late in the second to fight them off.
The Devils and Habs traded chances back and forth as the period moved on. The games against the Canadiens have been some of the most exciting, grueling, tense, nail-biting hockey that New Jersey has played all season, maybe for the exception of the games against the Rangers. Maybe it has to do with Montreal being such a tense theater for the sport, or these two teams matching up well, or Marty's homecoming angle, or any other sort of reason, these teams make for fun hockey. Down to the last minutes, boy was it nerve-wracking. Brodeur made it less uneasy, making 25 saves and some great ones at that.
The Devils played great defensive hockey in the last few minutes, keeping Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak on the ice and away from getting that sixth attacker until there were 50 seconds left. With 20 seconds left, Ilya Kovalchuk made a great clearing play, then chased the puck down the ice with Kostitsyn. The Montreal forward fell, and Kovalchuk took the puck, having a clear chance at getting a goal. But something possessed Kovy to make a drop pass to an onrushing Brian Rolston, desperately in need of a break and did he ever get one, burying the goal that made it 4-2 and putting the Devils where they belong, according to anyone inside the organization and anyone who follows them, in the chase for the Stanley Cup and the Playoffs.
With the win, the Devils also return to a tie for first place with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic Division with 93 points. They have a game in hand, which gives them by default, the #1 spot and the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. While Pittsburgh's in action on Sunday, the Devils will be playing tomorrow night as well in Philadelphia against the rival Flyers at 7PM. Thank you for joining me for the gamethread, and the fantastic John Fischer - whose Red Bulls got a 1-0 victory over Chicago tonight in the MLS opener at Red Bull Arena in Harrision - will be there to take you through it with the preview, gamethread and recap. I'll be in the gamethread. See you there. It's good to be back where we belong.