New Jersey Devils Come From Behind to Beat Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in OT; Jacques Lemaire's 600th Win

Tonight's win by the New Jersey Devils, a 2-1 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, is Jacques Lemaire's 600th career win as a head coach.  Congratulations to Lemaire for another milestone as part of a long and illustrious career in hockey both as a player and as a coach. Of course, the game itself was the opposite of what kind of game is associated with Lemaire.

This was not a defensive affair.  The Devils out-shot the Leafs 39-32 in the game, 37-31 in regulation, and 27-24 at 5-on-5.  This was not a disciplined affair.  The Devils took 7 minors to Toronto's 4, two of which took place during Devils power plays in their own end of the rink.  This was not a trapping game, as evidenced by the total shots on net  (and shooting attempts) by either team and the general pace of the game.

Of course, that's the narrative on Lemaire.  While the coach will find his points to gristle over and exhort his team to improve, the Devils did quite a bit right in their win.  They attacked from the very start. They didn't fall apart after the first goal allowed.  The penalty killers had a successful (and busy) night.  The forwards backchecked well and the defense cleaned up any rebounds.  And the Devils kept bombing away on James Reimer right until the glorious end.  I'd say the Devils were the better team at even strength and the result was deserved.

Seriously, you need to see Ilya Kovalchuk's game winning goal.  The video and more of my thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  In case you want a Toronto-based take on the game, please check out Pension Plan Puppets.

First, the stats from the game: the NHL.com game summary, the NHL.com event summary, the Time on Ice even strength Corsi chart, and the Time on Ice 5-on-5 head-to-head ice time chart.  I have to say, I've made a big error in calling the Corsi chart a 5-on-5 chart since it does state even strength. 4-on-4 is also considered even strength and given that 9:14 of the game was played at that situation, it's important to note that. My apologies for the error.

Second, here's the highlight video of the game from NHL.com.  If nothing else, please watch the Kovalchuk game winner.

Let's get the criticism out of the way before jumping into praise. The Devils looked quite sloppy on the goal by Nikolai Kulemin.  I know the Devils were in the midst of a change.  I know Colin White's stick broke.  I know it was a very broken play.  It definitely wasn't Moose's fault.  Johan Hedberg made two stops, he had no chance on the rebound that popped into the slot.  White can't be at fault as he went after the initial shooter (Phil Kessel) and had no stick to work with anyway.  Anssi Salmela and Patrik Elias drifted to Mikael Grabovski on the sideboards and perhaps that's the error.  One of them should have hung back in the slot.  

It was the sort of breakdown that has hurt NJ a lot in the first half of the season.  An easy goal for Kulemin and credit to that line for making it happen.  I felt it was their best line tonight.  Corsi would agree since they weren't buried in negative numbers: Kulemin -1; Kessel, -2; Grabovski +2.  So would shots on net, as Kessel had 5, Kulemin had 4, and Grabovski had 3; a total of 12 out of Toronto's 32 shots in the game.  They looked raring to go after Kulemin's goal and thankfully Hedberg and the Devils' D were up to the task.

The Devils had a real problem with penalties tonight, giving the Leafs 5 power play opportunities for a total of 8:22.  Some were sketchy calls.  Patrik Elias got tagged for tripping Kris Versteeg (which was more of a dive in my view) in the first period is one example.  Another was Jason Arnott knocking into James Reimer; I thought he was pushed, but the refs did not so he got two minutes in the box for goaltender interference.  Some were just plain dumb.  Mark Fayne hooked Nikolai Kulemin during a Devils power play in New Jersey's end of the rink in the second period, killing off the first power play since Sunday afternoon for New Jersey.  Brian Rolston topped that with a hold on Colby Armstrong - like hug over the shoulder -in New Jersey's end during a power play in the third period.   Colin White's roughing minor happened at even strength, but it was an easy call for the refs when he shoved Lupul down after a whistle in New Jersey's end.

At a minimum, Fayne, Rolston, and White should have known better.  The calls on Fayne and Rolston wouldn't have happened if the Devils power play started off better - or at least not having to go in their own end to defend a Leaf.  The power play was uneven. Again, two of them ended before the Devils got going. On the others, they had good possession and their one full PP in the third period really put the screws to Toronto.  It's a step forward compared to nights where man advantages would be largely wasted for 2 minutes.  Yet, the power play slump continues.

The only good penalty taken was the slashing call on Mark Fraser in the second period.  Henrik Tallinder whiffed on a breakout pass, a complete swing and a miss.  Tyler Bozak picked it up and charged at the net.  He was all alone since Tallinder was beaten and Mark Fraser was on the other side of the rink.  Johan Hedberg compounded Tallinder's error by making the first move, diving down to give Bozak an empty net if he toe-dragged it. Bozak did but Fraser slashed him as hard as he could, which contributed to Bozak missing the opportunity.   That's a penalty I can live with. It saved a goal. That was smart from the rookie. 

Thankfully, the PK units were solid tonight. They limited Toronto to 5 shots on net in that 8:22, several misses, and generally did a good job of clearing the puck.  Greene was a monster on the PK, playing 5:11 of it, and holding his own more than enough.  In fact, he played a total of 29:07 and I have no real complaints on how he did. White, Fraser, and Tallinder each put up more than 3 minutes and did a good job in their own right.  The forwards on the PK were led by Dainius Zubrus, Brian Rolston, and Travis Zajac.

Two of them had big nights overall.  Stupid holding penalty aside, Rolston did put up 6 shots on net, hit the crossbar in overtime, and finished with a +12 in Corsi.  Zubrus got to split draws with Patrik Elias (only 5-for-10 for Big Z, 4-for-8 for Elias), put up 4 shots of his own, and deflected a Mark Fayne shot for the Devils' lone goal in regulation.  He wasn't so great at Corsi with a +5, but I don't think he didn't get a lot of time at 4-on-4 like Rolston did, either.  Rounding out that second line was Elias, who had 3 shots on net, finished with a +12 in Corsi, and got the secondary assist on Zubrus' goal.

In general, the Devils were the better team at even strength. Per the Time on Ice Corsi chart, the Devils finished with a +25.  Fraser, White, and Greene had a +13 from the back; Kovalchuk was a +9; and the only negative Corsi players were Vladimir Zharkov (-1, got some PK time, 1 SOG) and Mattias Tedenby (-2, 1 SOG - robbed point-blank by Reimer).   The Devils only outshot the Leafs 27-24 at 5-on-5; but at 4-on-4, it was 7-2 in favor of NJ.  Given that the Devils got blocked a lot (23 times!) and missed the net a lot (21 times!), it was clear who had the puck more often in an attacking position - and it was the visitors. This was the case when it was 0-0, 0-1 Toronto, and tied at 1 apiece.  That's a very good thing.

When it comes to straight up shots, it'd be quicker to note who didn't get shots on net (Travis Zajac, believe it or not; Nick Palmieri, and Anssi Salmela).  While Mark Fayne had a few nice looks, he only got one shot on net.  If he has a great knack for finding shots through traffic, the numbers aren't agreeing.  Instead, praise Rolston for his 6, he was firing them early and often.  Praise David Clarkson for 6 shots on net; and the fourth line in general had a good night - Pelley was strong at the dot going 9-for-15. Maybe Adam Mair needs to play on that line more often?  Praise Jason Arnott for 3 shots on net while being the top faceoff man for the Devils tonight 8-for-12.  Then praise Ilya Kovalchuk, who gets his own paragraph.

In a night where several Devils played over 20 minutes, thanks to various special situations, Kovalchuk played the second most minutes of any Devil with 24:15.  He played nearly all of the power play time, which should surprise no one.  He got a total of 1:07 of shorthanded time, which is rather uncommon.  I know Lemaire tried Kovalchuk out for a little PK work in January but that has subsided.  Maybe he'll do it again, Kovalchuk wasn't too shabby in those 4-on-5 situations.  At evens, Kovalchuk got extra minutes and he was a workhorse. He back-checked strong, he knew to cover trailing guys in rushing situations, and he didn't always just take the puck and go forward.  Kovalchuk's defensive game was strong. Offensively, he put 4 on Reimer, 5 were blocked, and 2 were missed. Not the most accurate night, but he attempted 11 shots on net.  He had the puck that much.  Even without scoring, I'd say he had a complete game.

But he did score, and it was a beauty - the game winning goal in overtime.  An individual effort initially kicked off by Anssi Salmela (who wasn't miserable, incidentally), Kovalchuk...I can't do it justice.  Just watch it:

Brilliant.

I have to give respect to the goaltenders.  Hedberg had a busy night with 31 stops.  I felt he did a better job with his rebound control, not kicking them all over the place.  The one goal against definitely wasn't his fault; he made a great stop on Kessel, he had no chance on the rebound.  The only real error was making the first move on Bozak when he took it from Tallinder, but Fraser bailed him out with a penalty. I hope Hedberg gets a good night's rest because San Jose won't make it easy on him.

That said, Moose had it easier than James Reimer.   Some Devils fans may feel that New Jersey made him look good, but I think it's because Reimer is playing very well.   Before the game, he had a save percentage of 92.7%. Toronto doesn't have AHL-quality netminding with this call up.  It definitely showed in this game, keeping the score close and the Leafs in it at all times. He made some terrific stops from all over the place. Two examples come to my mind, his stoning Tedenby point-blank; and his denial of New Jersey chances on the Devils' full PP in the third period). 

The only time he may have looked bad was on the OT game winner. Prior to that, Reimer stopped 38 shots.  I can't say he blew it - not after what he went through. Leafs fans should laud Reimer's for his performance tonight; the media certainly did with naming him the third star of the game (I would have made him second).  If they want to get mad at someone for the goal against in overtime or for New Jersey constantly having the puck in Toronto's end, then they should point to the D.  For example, Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie, as both of them didn't do enough to impede Kovalchuk on his game winning rush up ice.

Either way, the Devils got the result and while Lemaire may have plenty to grouse about - as is his right as a coach - he should know that his team was the better one for the most part in his 600th career win.  That it happened on a dramatic, high octane, individual offensive play that was equal parts luck, skill, and determination is not irony.  After all, it got the job done.

That's my take on tonight's game.  What did you think of New Jersey's performance in Toronto? What impressed you the most? What do you think the Devils need to improve on going forward?  Were you as impressed with the goaltenders as I was?  Was Kovalchuk's overtime winner the best of the three he has this season?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to the commenters in the Gamethread; and thank you for reading.

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