Ilya Kovalchuk Starred in Decisive 4-1 Win by New Jersey Devils Over Montreal Canadiens

The New Jersey Devils that came out onto the ice this afternoon in Montreal performed much better than they did on Friday night against the Florida Panthers.  Forwards backchecked smartly to help out the defense.  The Devils cleared out most of the messes in front of and around the goal. Most of the defensemen enjoyed good games all around.  They were not loose, they were tight and, more importantly, in control.   Martin Brodeur did not have to stand on his head to give his team a chance today.

He also didn't have to because he only played the first period. He tweaked his right knee on a shot in the first period, managed to stay through, but was replaced by Johan Hedberg for the second period. The Moose had a lot more work, what with Montreal trying to catch up in the game, but he put in a fine performance. The one goal that he did allow can't be faulted on him as it was more of a fluke deflection than anything else.

However, at the center of New Jersey's fairly-complete performance this afternoon was Ilya Kovalchuk. From his first shift onward, Kovalchuk was a beast out there.  He played corner-to-corner today.  He helped in the slot defensively while looking for guys in it on offense.  Kovalchuk's forecheck to end a long shift for him helped set up Dainius Zubrus' goal to open up the scoring.  He and Travis Zajac worked over P.K. Subban to win a puck behind the net, Zajac got it to Colin White, and Kovalchuk deflected White's shot into the net.  Kovalchuk was a +8 in Corsi at 5-on-5; put 6 shots on net; had 3 blocked; 1 missed (yes, Kovalchuk attempted 10 of New Jersey's 54 shooting attempts); and got credited the rare automatic-empty net goal to seal the win.  He played 21:15 at evens, 25:10 overall, and while Mattias Tedenby got his shifts overtaken by Kovalchuk, it was totally worth it.  When Kovalchuk was out there, good things generally kept happening for New Jersey.  Heck, P.K. Subban only scored because his shot took a weird bounce off the shaft of Kovalchuk's stick. That's how seemingly magical he was this afternoon.

All the same, Kovalchuk was the star this afternoon and the best player at the rink today in what was a tidy 4-1 win by the visiting New Jersey Devils.  I have a few more thoughts on today's game after the jump.  Please check out Habs Eyes on the Prize and the Montreal Gazette's Habs Inside/Out for a Montreal-based take on today's game.

First, here are the links to stats from the game I'll be referencing in this recap: the NHL.com game summary, the NHL.com event summary, the Time on Ice 5-on-5 Corsi chart, and the Time on Ice 5-on-5 head to head icetime chart.

Second, here is the highlights video of today's game from NHL.com.  Check out the goals, the saves, and the hits (plenty of big ones, I thought there would be more from Anton Volchenkov) from today's game in case you missed it or if you want to relive the moment again.

Let's get the important bit out of the way. Martin Brodeur did leave the game early with what is believed to be a bruised right knee.  However, it doesn't appear to be a serious issue.  Rich Chere tweeted during the game that he was in good spirits and even went up stairs.   After the game, Chere reported that the legendary goaltender said he was "OK."  Tom Gulitti also confirmed after the game that Brodeur made the decision to leave and that it's not a major injury.   This is good news going forward.  Even if all the Devils have to play for is pride at this point (and I believe so), they're going to be far more competitive with Brodeur in net than Hedberg.

That said, the Moose was very good today.  Montreal liked to crash the net and create screens, and Hedberg dealt with it as best as he could.   Even when Max Pacioretty slugged him way away from the play, quite possibly one of the easiest goaltender interference calls I've seen in a while.  As noted before the jump, both Brodeur and Hedberg got the benefit of white jerseys closing out Les Habs from loose pucks in front and on their flank.   After a Florida game where he made two major errors en route to two goals against, he should feel real good given how well he played in relief.

Of course, Hedberg got the benefit of two breaks in the third period. A puck bouncing high in the air after a failed wraparound attempt went off the back of Hedberg's head, rolled down, and then just died on the goalline before the net was knocked off.  The ref called it no goal and review confirmed it.  Later on, Brian Gionta was in perfect position for a shot off a rebound.  Hedberg had no chance, but a diving Rod Pelley and Anssi Salmela (who I think got a piece of it) forced the shot to go high over the net.  Good breaks there, and good job by Salmela on that desparation play. 

The only time Hedberg was beaten, unfortunately, was partially Salmela's fault.  He was taking the puck up the neutral zone and he was stopped along the boards by Pacioretty. Somehow the puck squirts cross-ice to Scott Gomez who only had a single defenseman in front of him. He slowed up, laid it on for P.K. Subban who duffed a slapshot.  Yet, the shot hit the shaft of Koalchuk's stick and sailed into the net, giving the Canadiens some life in the game.  Not Moose's (or Kovalchuk's) fault - Salmela should have dumped it initially.

Moving onto the defense, for the most part, they whethered storms well and move up ice when they could.  Only the Greene (-6) and Salmela (-7) pairing was pounded in terms of Corsi; the other four defensemen finished positive, especially Mark Fayne (+4) and Henrik Tallinder (+7).  Jacques Lemaire utilized his defensemen as best as he could, but the third pairing saw Tomas Plekanec (6 shots on goal) the most.  Even so, the defensive effort was quite good. They held a desperate Montreal team to only 10 shots on goal in the third period, blocking 18 total shots (including 5 on Weber), and . I wished some of their clearing attempts were stronger, as a few sustained Montreal possession when they were pinned back, but that's my sole complaint.

Most of all, I was impressed on how calm they were.  It was a physical game, but the Devils as a whole took only one minor today: a hook by Tallinder in the first period.  Montreal was ferocious on that sole power play, putting up 4 shots on net and 3 within the first minute.  Brodeur was big and eventually the Devils PK unit was able to get the puck out with more success in the second half of that PP.  Thankfully, the Devils were disciplined enough so they didn't get to see more of the Montreal power play.

Speaking of power plays, the Devils actually looked like they were playing with a man advantage when they had them. The Devils got two in this game and while they didn't score, they established possession, they made smart passes, and they put a few good shots on Carey Price.  That's what I want to see more often, Devils. Actual offensive pressure. The Devils put up 6 shots over 4 minutes which isn't bad. Fans of "bleu blanc et rouge" should be thankful that Price made stops on those first few PP shots because they were dangerous - especially Kovalchuk getting a close rebound attempt early in the game.

Even before Brodeur got hurt and left the game, it was clear early on this wouldn't be a goaltender's duel.  Price was beaten on the first two shots in the game, after all.  I feel a little bit bad for him because the three goals he allowed all had to do with the guys in front of him rather than something he didn't do right.  The Canadiens had the puck in their possession behind the net and the Devils made them cough it up.  Can't fault the goalie there.  Travis Zajac scored the third goal of the game when he won a loose puck amid traffic and beat Price on his left.  The Montreal D was made to look dumb on that one.   He had plenty of work and several tough saves; but my main point is that he didn't blow the game nearly as bad as his defense did.

Jacques Martin should be criticized in this loss if only for this simple fact: P.K. Subban and Hal Gill were put out there regularly against Kovalchuk-Zajac-Palmieri at even strength despite getting trounced in the first period.   Even though Montreal eventually got ahead of New Jersey as a team in Corsi (+5 for Montreal), these guys were pinned back constantly; Subban finished at -9 and Gill a -4.    Kovalchuk (6), Zajac (3 SOG, +9), and Nick Palmieri (3 SOG, +6) combined for 12 of New Jersey's 30 shots in this game. They tore up the rookie and the big, slow guy all game long. I'm shocked Martin didn't make a change. Though, given how Kovalchuk was playing, it doesn't surprise me why Lemaire put him out with Jason Arnott (ended at 0 Corsi) and Vladimir Zharkov (+1 in Corsi) because Martin wasn't doing much about him.

Even if you're not a numbers guy, it was plainly obvious that #17, #19, and #32 were breaking down Montreal on the regular. You have to ask: why didn't Martin try a different defensive pairing, just to see how it goes? Why feed 21:19 of even strength time to Subban when he was being beaten? Why didn't he make a tactical change, like imposing a trap?   Did he not notice how one of his first plays of the game was snaking the puck through 3 Canadiens before he was shoved away deep in Montreal's zone; that it could be a sign that he should be marked constantly?

Montreal can claim a victory over Brian Rolston (2 SOG, -6), Dainius Zubrus (2 SOG, 1 G, -8), and Patrik Elias (1 SOG, -7).  That line was solidly negative in Corsi and was pinned back quite a bit near the end of the game.  They weren't as bad as the fourth line in today's game; but it's clear that line's hot streak is over and done with from a possession perspective. Hopefully they won't be so leaky on Tuesday.

Switching back to a positive, another area where the Devils were dominant this afternoon was faceoffs.  As further evidence that Travis Zajac had a monster-like game today along with #17, Zajac went 14-for-17 at the dot in Montreal.  Seriously: 14-for-17.  He absolutely owned Scott Gomez according the faceoff report, going 9-for-11 against the big money, tossed-at-end-of-the-game center.  Jason Arnott was the only other Devil who finished about 50% on draws, going a perfectly fine 10-for-17.  The two carried the Devils' pivots to a faceoff win percentage to 59% in the game.

Overall, it was a great effort by the Devils.  They kept attacking with a 2-0 goal lead, out-shooting Montreal 14-5 and adding to their lead prior to Subban's goal off a fluke deflection. When Montreal stormed in the third period, they still put up enough offense to keep them honest, only being out-shot 10-5.  They didn't wilt or get too crazy when Montreal went chippy. They counter-attacked very well when the game opened up. And they didn't panic on the few shifts where Montreal was seemingly in control.  I really appreciated Lemaire's gameplan today as well as the level of focus from the players.  I loved seeing it in action and I hope to see it in future games.

One final point.  Kovalchuk got awarded the rare automatic empty net goal.  Near the end of the game, shortly after Montreal pulled Price, Kovalchuk split the D in the neutral zone thanks to Zajac.  He was bursting through and an empty net goal was certain. However, he was hooked from behind by a diving Subban.  Kovalchuk still got a shot off (because he was a beast today), but it hit the post.  So the ref blew his whistle and made the call. As I understand it, if there was someone in net, then it would have been a penalty shot. But since the net was empty, a penalty shot would be a formality.  Hence, the automatically awarded goal.  Thanks, P.K. Subban!

That's my take on the game.  What did you think of the Devils' performance?  Did you enjoy Kovalchuk be the star of the game due to his massive performance?  Who else did you think had a great game for New Jersey? I, for one, really liked Zajac's game. What would you like to see the Devils do differently?  Please let me know your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread for commenting and thank you for reading.

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