On Monday, I wrote a post about how incredible the New Jersey Devils have played in this second half of the season. I still implore all the Devils fans who have read it or will read it to heed the title and appreciate what they have done so far. A 24-5-2 record alone commands such respect. In retrospect, I wish I went a little more at length on how many of those 24 wins were close games, ones where the Devils tied it up in the third period en route to a win. They weren't necessarily the better team in each of those 24 victories, just that they got results.
More recently, the Devils have been the better team in their last three games and only one of them. There's something to be said for how valuable a good bounce or a hot goaltender can be, depending on what side of the result you're on.
Tonight was a more even competition than any of those three games, though. The Devils came out and beat the Bruins all over the ice, yet the first period ended 1-1. The Bruins pounded the Devils throughout the second and went ahead by only one goal, 2-1. This was a familiar situation for New Jersey. Not winning going into the third and needing to at least equalize to keep hopes of a win alive. While the Devils seemingly put the effort in the third period to try and tie it up. To do what they have been doing so often within the last two months.
Only, tonight, it didn't happen. And with less than 4 minutes left, Milan Lucic essentially sealed the win with a one-timer in the slot. Martin Brodeur had no chance at it. Worse, it came on a rush just after a one-timer attempt by Ilya Kovalchuk was re-directed wide instead of blasted past Tim Thomas' right side. Even watching it on TV, I felt it was in slow-motion. The attempt going awry certainly wasn't Kovalchuk's fault as it was a bad bounce off a hard pass. And how Boston just slid in for one great chance is as much of the fault of the skaters on the ice as it was a great shot from Lucic. Certainly it was deflating. While Jacques Lemaire pulled Brodeur late in the hopes for a miracle (it didn't happen, Mark Recchi scored an empty net goal), it likely wasn't going to occur - and it didn't.
It sucks real bad in how it went down, but in the bigger picture, it was bound to happen. The Devils have done it so many times to other teams that the law of averages suggest a few are going to go against New Jersey. So it did in Boston.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Bruins' based perspective on the game, please check out Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here's a video of all of the highlights from tonight's loss:
Kovalchuk Did His Job: I don't think anyone would argue otherwise, but I figure I should point out what he did. He scored the Devils' lone goal, a beautiful one-timer from Mattias Tedenby on the power play. He also put 6 shots on Thomas, leading the team in that category.
The Zajac line did well in terms of possession, as Kovalchuk (+7 Corsi), Travis Zajac (+5), and Nick Palmieri (+5) put up the best values among all New Jersey forwards. Kovalchuk was double-shifted with Jacob Josefson (-4) and Mattias Tedenby (-5) and still came out as the best Devils skater at Corsi. Plus, Kovalchuk saw the Zdeno Chara (-3 Corsi) and Johnny Boychuk (-5) pairing the most along with the David Krejci line and still came out ahead. On top of all this, he was the only Devil to take a faceoff and have a winning percentage over 50%. OK, he was 1-for-1, but every other draw-taker for New Jersey finished at 50% or worse tonight.
Simply put, I feel he had a great game. I wish he scored late in the third as well. I'm sure he wishes he scored as well. The loss is certainly not his fault. If anything, without him, this goes down as a shutout for Tim Thomas.
Brodeur Also Did His Job: Two of the three goals that beat him were on one-timers at close range, one on his flank. The other one - the first one - was a deflection by Shawn Thornton on a Dennis Seidenberg shot. I don't think the goalie can be faulted on either. It's disappointing that all three happened because Brodeur had a very busy night. Early on, he didn't, but he was shelled in the second period. 17 shots against, and at least 7 on the 4 power plays Boston had in that period alone. Brodeur had to stack the pads a few times, fight through screens to get stops, and deal with several scrums in front of him to prevent a jammed puck getting into the net. Like his counterpart at the opposite rink, Brodeur played as well as one could expect. The Bruins just had the better opportunities.
Why This Game Was Even: The Devils owned the first 14 minutes of the game, holding Boston to a mere two shots on net, shotless on a powerplay, and putting 16 of their own even with a power play goal. You couldn't ask for more. Then Thornton deflected a puck in, Boston looked more lively. Still, the first ended 16-6 in shots in favor of NJ. The Bruins really took it to the Devils in the second period; they made the most of their four power plays, took the lead, and finished the period 17-8 in shots. So how about that third period?
7-7 in shots! Ultimately, the Devils finished at +1 as a team in Corsi. Just +1. While the Devils may have seemed like they were the ones going forward more often than not (and understandably so, they were down a goal), New Jersey just didn't get enough on Thomas. The Bruins attacked a little more on the counter than I thought and ultimately made the most on one of their rushes to double their lead.
The game finished 31-30 in shots in favor of NJ. While the Devils had a 27-20 lead at even strength shots, attempts were only 35-34 in favor of the visitors. Incidentally, the Bruins actually made more attempts than New Jersey: 47-41. This game may have felt like the losses to Ottawa and Washington from last week, but in reality, the Bruins played closely with New Jersey in terms of shots and possession and came out winners. They fully deserved their win.
What Undercut the Devils: What allowed Boston to really control the second period were power plays. The Devils took four minors and all of them were avoidable calls. Mark Fayne hooked Michael Ryder across his waist to start the period. Nick Palmieri tripped up Zdeno Chara on a forecheck right in front of a ref. David Steckel hit Zach Boychuk away from the play. Dainius Zubrus smothered Andrew Ference with his right arm while chasing down a dumped-in puck. The Zubrus penalty was the dumbest of the four taken in the second by far. I wanted to throw something when he pulled that off. Surely, Big Z knows that type of a swim move isn't a hockey play (it's something defensive linemen use, IIRC). Palmieri's was the most costly as Chara dropped in on the Devils' flank to fire a one-timer past Brodeur for the 2-1 lead.
While Boston only cashed in on one of them they took the opportunity to put up 10 shots on net, take the lead, and keep New Jersey from going on offense. That they got 8 shots in the period despite playing 6:07 down a man isn't too bad. But it allowed Boston to take the lead.
Coincidentally, only Fayne among those four players can I really say had a solid game. Fayne finished at a +6 in Corsi, put 5 shots on net, had a shot deflected on net by David Clarkson that hit the pipe, and did well against Patrice Bergeron's line. While he finished a +3 in Corsi, Zubrus took two avoidable minors in the game and registered no shots on net. His only contribution? Getting hooked by Mark Recchi in the first period, which led to the Devils' lone goal tonight. Palmieri did at least put 2 shots on net and had a +5 in Corsi, but he wasn't much of a factor. He did not build on his awesome game against Columbus on Sunday. Steckel went 4-for-9 at the dot and while the fourth line was on it's way to finishing positive in Corsi after the first two periods, they still went negative. Steckel finished at -2.
Oh, David: While Clarkson did have a nice deflection on a Fayne shot that beat Thomas but not the iron, Clarkson had a poor night. The third line of him, Josefson, and Tedenby were getting pinned back from the start of the game. Lemaire identified Clarkson as someone to move to allow Kovalchuk to be double-shifted with the kids. While the rookies still didn't do much (Tedenby did a call tonight), Clarkson did even worse next to Adam Mair and Steckel. Mair and Steckel were on their way to finishing positive in Corsi, allowing us to have proof that they were OK. Clarkson dragged them down as he finished at -9 in Corsi, the worst on NJ. The only positive I can say about Clarkson's performance was that at least he didn't take a penalty.
They Got the One: We can call the power play a success of sorts because they scored a goal. Rather quickly too. On the other hand, their second power play generated only one shot on net (a really good one from Kovalchuk) and not much else. Still, 1 conversion out of 2 is progress for this team.
Yes and No: Such is the answer to the question, "Did the Elias line have a good game?" In terms of possession, they just finished above zero: Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston were each a +1 and Zubrus was a +3. They were caught with no one in the slot for Lucic for his third goal. Yet, the line did get some offense going, with Elias and Rolston putting up 3 shots apiece. Plus, based on the head to head ice time charts, Claude Julien mixed up who went out against that line. Perhaps that was in response to dealing with the Zajac line, but it's a sign that they may have given him some problems. Ultimately, they were in the middle. I leave it to you, the reader, to determine where exactly in that middle they were in. All the same, they could have done better tonight.
The Best Bruin (Skater) on the Ice: Chara's Corsi may have been negative, but he otherwise had a great night. He had the eventual game winning goal, drew the penalty that led to the aforementioned GWG, he got 4 shots on net (tied with Recchi for team lead tonight), he didn't fracture anyone's vertebra, and had the secondary assist on the Lucic goal and the game-icing Recchi goal. 24:27 of work, mostly against a rather inspired Kovalchuk this evening, and he didn't come out too badly along with the production. I felt that behind Thomas, he was the best Bruin on the ice.
In Place of Zharkov: Zharkov was scratched in favor of Rod Pelley getting into the lineup. While Pelley didn't do too badly - 1 SOG, a +2 in Corsi playing next to Mair and Steckel - he only got 6:41 of ice time, 5:45 at even strength. I can support him sitting for Kovalchuk to get double-shifted. Kovalchuk was playing well, after all. Besides, it's not going to hurt Pelley to play such limited minutes as it might for Zharkov. Though considering how poorly Clarkson was playing, I wish in retrospect that Lemaire played Pelley in place of #23 when he was dropped to the fourth line.
Regression May Come, But Not Tonight: While Boston's offense certainly ensure tonight's win, it wouldn't have been possible without Tim Thomas. Thomas made a lot of tough stops in the first period, didn't get complacent in the second period, and made a couple of important saves in the third - notably robbing Kovalchuk on a slapshot on New Jersey's second power play of the night. I'm still skeptical about the sustainability of a 94% save percentage, but after tonight, I can see why he has so far. Thomas was great when he had to keep his team in the game and when he had to preserve the lead.
One Final Point: The Devils really needed to put up more than 7 on Thomas in the third period, particularly when down by a goal. Boston did a good job digging in deep and forcing as much of the game as possible to be played along the boards. This forced the Devils to expend their energy there as opposed to controlling the puck and looking for open men for shots. The tactic worked well, but in retrospect, the Devils really needed to be more desperate with their shot selection later in the period. Even long shots would have worked, they were getting through. After all Fayne got 5 shots on goal and, somehow, Colin White got 3 shots on goal (yeah, that Colin White).
Of course, I would want the Devils to not be in the situation where they need an equalizer at all. That said, I hope they'll do better next time. It won't be easy, what with it being in Pittsburgh and all.
What do you think the Devils should do differently for their next two road games (a back-to-back set) to win them? What would you have done with Clarkson tonight? Do you think other forwards not named Kovalchuk will have a big performance in the next few games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all of the commentators and thanks for reading. And remember: appreciate what was accomplished as it cannot be taken away - only forgotten.