Devils Explode For Early Lead, Nearly Surrender It, Still Beat League-Leading San Jose Sharks 4-3

There are a few schools of thought to come from the New Jersey Devils 4-3 win against the San Jose Sharks in the Bay Area tonight.  First of all, it must be noted that for 11 minutes of the hockey game, the Devils were completely dominant.  Absolutely out-chancing, out-hustling, and out-playing the Western Conference's best team.  For five or six minutes of this game - including the two and a half minutes in the middle of the third period in which the Devils surrendered three goals and looked horrendous in their own end - there was no way they belonged in the same building.  It was gut-wrenching end to what had ben - for the other 44 or so minutes - a pretty quiet, even game.

That said, I'm choosing to take my view of this game from a positive angle.  Yes, our boys looked really bad and had another one of their stretches where we gave up too many goals in a very short burst.  But look, for most of this game, the team that had so many worries and confusions and flat out terrible play since the new year began - was solid, competent and competitive.  Then, at other times, they showed glimpses of the team they have the potential to be if they settle things down on the back end.

That team, my friends, is simply awesome.  When the Devils get things going on offense, it is a sight to see.  They got chances - and a goal!  A goal! - on the power play (!!!!!).  Everyone contributed.  The ZZ Pops line got a goal, the Ilya Kovalchuk/Patrik Elias/Dainius Zubrus line (I call them The Eastern Bloc) got a goal.  The power play got a goal from Kovy at the point, and the new third line of Brian Rolston/Rob Niedermayer/David Clarkson got some chances, but also played spectacularly as a de facto checking line, particularly towards the end of the game.

The place to go for all the stats, highlights, box scores, and any other useful information is NHL.com.  Fear the Fin and Battle of California will have reactions from the San Jose side, and likely ones that will be happy their team was in this game at all.  But boy, can that team turn it on/the Devils D can stop playing hockey like professionals in a short span of time.  Anyway, let's get on with the tentatively happy recap.

As was mentioned before, this game was pretty even for most of the parts where one team wasn't dominating overwhelmingly.  Which seems awfully simplistic, but halfway through the game, the shots were 12-10, which each team only having a few good chances.  Martin Brodeur came back from the Olympic break with a pretty quick start, making some key saves early on.  The Devils power play looked awful on it's one chance.  It seemed like a pretty typical, harmless, if slightly worrisome first period.

This all changed midway through the second period.  If there are two things we've learned from Ilya Kovalchuk's tenure as a Devil, it's that he is fast, and that when he breaks out, it'll be scary for opposing defenses.  He showed signs of both as he made fantastic, aggressive rush to the middle of the ice, dropped a pass to an open Patrik Elias, who got a good shot on goal.  Decent enough, except goaltender Evgeni Nabokov did not get all of it, the puck squirted loose, and Dainius Zubrus - who played so well when he came back before the break - continued his good play and buried it to make it 1-0 Devils.

This good fortune continued with the third line and the defense providing a goal 35 seconds later.  David Clarkson fed Mark Fraser at the point, and he slapped a one-timer, not too hard but getting good wood/composite, and it somehow just blew by Nabokov, who had a poor Olympics and certainly did not restore much faith in himself tonight.  Fraser got his third of the year, and it was 2-0.

The fact that the Devils were leading 2-0 on a team with 89 points going into the break would've delighted you enough, but they kept going, even after Sharks coach Todd Richards called a timeout after the second goal.  Getting a power play toward the end of the period, the puck got sent to the point where Kovalchuk unleashed a wrister - gee, Ilya, ya' don't need to whack it with all your might all the time - that got through a somewhat screened Nabokov.  All of a sudden, the Devils had... a power play goal!  And a 3-0 lead!  At the end of two!  

Things were pretty good, and they got even better before they got worse.  It seems Travis Zajac got tired of watching Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner hog the spotlight during the Winter Olympics.  Early in the third, Travis just skated into the zone and ripped a slapshot that got past Nabokov.  Zajac's 20th (congrats on back-to-back 20-goal years for the often more overlooked of the young Devils forwards) made it 4-0, midway through the third, and things looked pretty good.

Except they apparently didn't.  The Sharks rattled off three goals in 2:35 to make it 4-3.  After a pair of tallies from Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski hit paydirt with 8:25 to go to cap the rally and make it a game, and a real nerve-wracking one at that.  But the Devils dug deep, hung on, and played a pretty solid defensive game the rest of the way.  They even improved their offensive chances a little bit, as Kovalchuk was launched on a breakaway, but got denied by Nabokov, making likely his best save of the game.

Credit down the stretch must go to the third line for some excellent defensive play.  With 90 seconds left, Rob Niedermayer essentially decided to play keep away from the Sharks for a good thirty seconds, pretty much icing the game.  The Sharks finally got Nabokov off, but could not launch a successful attack.  Kovalchuk nearly potted and empty netter.  He missed, but came back on defense to shut down the final Shark breakout, and the game ended.... and we breathed a heavy breath.  But we were happy for the experience.

Remember, tomorrow is Trade Deadline day.  Will the Devils add anything?  Darren Dreger says it won't be Scott Niedermayer.  Who will it be, if anyone?  Stay tuned to find out, and check out our open thread tomorrow morning.  The Devils are on the ice again Friday in Calgary, whom I've forgotten the coach of...

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