Since the All-Star break, the New Jersey Devils have lost exactly one game in regulation and one game in overtime. They went 11-1-1 in February, and with tonight's 2-1 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, they remain perfect in March. What's remarkable is that it's another win by one-goal. There have been games where the Devils were clearly the best team on the ice and just couldn't get more than one more goal than the opposition. There have been games where the Devils where the opposition looked solid for most of the game but New Jersey pulled through late or got a good bounce to win. Tonight's game was somewhere in the middle.
It was clear to me early on that Pittsburgh is a rather good team at getting the puck up ice. What's more is that theyd didn't waste it. They attempted a lot of shots tonight, a total of 54. Pittsburgh got plenty of rubber on Martin Brodeur with 26 on net and got nearly as much rubber on the Devils' skaters since they had 21 attempts blocked. New Jersey wasn't doing too shabby in terms of making attempts; they had 30 shots on net out of 48 attempts. But the Penguins established early that they weren't going to get snared into a 1-2-2. If anything, they attempted to do the same to New Jersey with varying effect.
Still, all this means is that Pittsburgh played a solid enough game. They got a wonderful break not long after Travis Zajac got one, and a tied score was fitting for the night. Pittsburgh did more, but the Devils didn't get beaten on like they were for most of their recent road trip.
While overtime was understandable, the Devils came out in full effect in the extra five minutes. They rushed ahead, they set-up good opportunities, and actually drew a penalty. Pittsburgh nearly got out of the 4-on-3, but Patrik Elias made a saucer pass to the one man who's been getting goals even when they're at a premium during a broken play. Ilya Kovalchuk fired it hard, found the back of the net, and the power play goal led to yet another win. It was his fourth overtime goal this season along with his second straight game with a goal scored. I've been using his name a lot in the headline for a reason: he's a big reason why the Devils keep racking up "Ws."
Such as it is for the Devils right now. They remain hot, they remain getting the good luck in close games, and they keep getting results by making the most of their chances. Savor this ridiculous stretch of 19 wins out of the last 23 games. You may not see something like this come out of New Jersey in a long time.
I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out PensBurgh later for a take on tonight's game from a Penguins' fan perspective.
The Game Highlights: Check out the game's highlights in this embedded video from NHL.com:
Fun with Possession Stats: Matt made a point of this in the Gamethread at times, it merits repeating in my opinion. The Corsi values show the Penguins had the better of possession. The Devils were a -5 in Corsi tonight. That's because Corsi includes blocked shots and, well, the Devils blocked a boatload of shots tonight. That offsets the 7 shot lead the Devils had at even strength this evening. Yet, if you notice the Fenwick column, the Devils were a +8. I've been using Corsi consistently since I believe blocks mean something within a single game. It's still evidence the team got into an attacking position to shoot and the only reason why it didn't go on net was because a Devil got a skate, shin, knee, thigh, butt, hip, chest, arm, or some other part of their person in their way,
As I noted before the jump, the Penguins did more with the puck and got forward more, and the Corsi value justifies that. So it goes.
Let's Review a Matchup: As I noted in my game preview, it was reported by Sam Kasan at the Penguins' official website that head coach Dan Bylsma wanted to match Jordan Staal (and his line) with Kovalchuk (and his line). Right from the man's mouth. Well, the head to head ice time chart shows that Kovalchuk saw Staal and his linemates Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy the most among Penguins forwards. How did it go?
I guess you could say it was sort of a wash. Both lines scored a goal: Zajac caught Brent Johnson not exactly on the right post on a backhanded shot that squeeked in. Tyler Kennedy scored off a wonderful bounce, which I'll touch on a little later. In terms of Corsi, Kovalchuk and Zajac actually finished at 0, which is pretty good since the Devils as a team were -5. Though, Nick Palmieri was a -3. Staal was a -3; Kennedy was -5; and Cooke was -1. So the action tended to be in Johnson's end when those three were on the ice. That's not bad.
Shots between lines do favor the Penguins' side of things, though. The Staal line can say they shut them down in this regard. Palmieri had no shots on net. While Zajac was dominating faceoffs by going 14-for18, his only shot on net in the game was his goal. Kovalchuk had 3 shots on net - one of which was the game winning PPG in OT - with two blocked (one was during that power play) and one miss. Whereas Kennedy alone had 6 shots on net, including a goal. Staal had no shots on net and Cooke had one, but it's OK since Kennedy was feeling it tonight.
All in all, congratulations to Bylsma. You publicly called out a game plan, it actually happened, and it didn't blow up in your face tonight. Good job. Kovalchuk only killed your team in a broken play on a 4-on-3 in OT, anyway.
Speaking of Kovalchuk: Here's a tweet by Ryan Lambert a.k.a. @twolinepass, of Puck Daddy:
kovalchuk oct-nov: 21 GP, 4-6-10. kovalchuk dec-jan: 25 GP, 10-9-19. kovalchuk feb-march: 15 GP, 9-8-17. whatttt
Here's a fun game: take a guess as to why this is happening. I'm going to start with "Sweet, glorious regression." Come up with your own in the comments.
A Missed Opportunity: Kris Letang hit Travis Zajac during a play. While the puck wheeled around and out, Letang kept shoving Zajac down with his stick. Words were exchanged, feelings were expressed, and gloves were off by the time Kovalchuk got the puck and was wheeling about waiting for Zajac to come on-side. I don't care much for fights, but I have to note this one because Letang did not wear a fight strap. Since Zajac pulled Letang's jersey up, it was an easy game misconduct call on Letang. 6:14 into the game and on Letang's fourth shift of the game, he was ejected. The Penguins were forced to use five defensemen, having lost the team leader in average total ice time per game (23:54).
And yet, the Devils did not take full advantage of this. A big reason why has to do with Pittsburgh's offense. Because they had so much possession and went forward, they were not swamped except for a few shifts. Another big reason is that even without Letang, the Penguins had guys who could play big minutes: Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek. They had long nights: Martin played a total of 35:26 (!!!) and Michalek had a lighter load of 28:05. The funny thing is that they didn't get destroyed at evens. Martin actually finished a +1 in Corsi and Michalek was only a -1. Excellent work by both. Newcomer Matt Niskanen got a good bump in minutes as he put in 22:57 of work (and a -4 in Corsi), as did Derek Engelland with 19:14 (and a +6 in Corsi).
They got plenty of help from their forwards, who backchecked very well in my opinion. The Penguins cleaned up a lot of rebounds and in the few cases where a Devil broke through, there would be one or two Pittsburgh sticks in the way to prevent a strong shot or even any shot from behind. Say what you want about their physical play (and I do have something to say about that), but the defending was very clean in that regard. They supported Johnson well.
Now That His ELC is Burned for This Season, How Did Jacob Josefson Do: Josefson had a very good night. He had 4 shots on net, the second most out of any Devil this evening, nearly scoring on Brent Johnson in the third period. Josefson along with Vladimir Zharkov were both successful in their match-ups, going +4 and +5 in Corsi respectively. Given that the Devils were a -5 as a team in Corsi, that's really impressive. He made good decisions both off and on the puck throughout the night, and so he got 11:11 of icetime. I'd go as far as to say that Josefson had his best game yet this season. I'm definitely not a fan of kicking his contract in now, but it's over and done with.
Him? Really? Him? REALLY: Adam Mair had 6 shots on net. Yes, he led the Devils in shots tonight. With Mattias Tedenby scratched (probably for the best given the opponent), Mair made the most of his 12:09 with David Steckel (5-for-8 on draws) and Rod Pelley. Of course, this line still managed to get pinned back quite a bit despite Mair bombing away. Mair was a -3 in Corsi; Pelley was a -7 (ouch); and Steckel was a +1. Mind you, this is largely with Adam Mair putting up six shots on net. If the unit was a picture hung on a wall, it'd have to say "Bless This Mess."
Other Than That Assist, It Was a Bad Night: Patrik Elias was not having a good day. He was -9 in Corsi, the worst on either team. Elias got demolished on faceoffs, winning only one out of eight (Dainius Zubrus wasn't much better at 1-for-4). He did manage two shots on net, but he did notably have a two-on-one situation in the third period where he couldn't get a clean shot from a feed from Zubrus. He will be most remembered for making that saucer pass to Kovalchuk for the game winning power play goal, though. Just a bad night for the legendary Devils forward.
Ice Packs for Two: Andy Greene blocked 6 shots tonight and Henrik Tallinder got credited for 4. No word on whether they muttered "pain don't hurt" when they were on the bench. Both played over 22 minutes, leading the Devils' defense. They had a busy night given they were in their own end a little more often than not (-3 Corsi for Greene, -2 for Tallinder), but they held up well. Not too many errors by the Devils' defense. Martin Brodeur made the necessary stops, put the rebounds to where his teammates could get to them (perhaps a few too many for my liking, but such were the shots faced), and they moved on. Not bad.
The Goal Assisted by Scott Driscoll: The man in stripes wearing #68 was lineman Scott Driscoll. He played an important role tonight. After dropping the puck for a defensive zone draw that Zajac won (of course, he did), he went to the side. Anton Volchenkov made a pass up to Kovalchuk on the sideboards. Kovalchuk attempted a pass, but it hit Driscoll's skates. This allowed Tyler Kennedy to take it into space and fire a wicked shot past Martin Brodeur. That certainly isn't the goalie's fault. Kennedy had time, space, and the element of sudden surprise on his side. Perhaps Kovalchuk should have tried to hold onto it or move it up himself. Yet, if Driscoll didn't get in the way, then Kennedy doesn't have the puck and there's no goal. I'd chalk it up to a bad break.
Speaking of Refs, Or Please No Whining, Penguins Fans: The Pittsburgh Penguins are the most penalized team in the league. No one has more minors then them. They have a roster that loves to play to the proverbial edge and with that come penalty minutes. Tonight, referees Dennis LaRue and Francois St. Laurent let the division rivals play a lot. There was a lot of physical stuff that was let go. They called three minor penalties and each were clear-cut calls. Dainius Zubrus high-sticked Engelland. No problem there. Colin White got tagged for boarding when he hit Mark Letestu into the boards from behind. I have no beef with that call.
Michalek got hit with hooking Zajac in overtime. I can understand why Pittsburgh fans may not be pleased with that, but you must be reasonable. That was a clear hook by Michalek. Zajac did well to draw that call; that juke he pulled got Michalek's stick to get more than just Zajac's hands. Even if he just smacked Zajac's hands, the NHL has been fairly consistent in calling that since 2005-06. I don't want to hear any whining about how the refs blew it here.
Especially since the referees inexcusably swallowed their whistles on two situations.
The first was a headshot by Pascal Dupuis on Anton Volchenkov. Just a high hit, completely unnecessary by the Pittsburgh winger. Thankfully, Volchenkov wasn't bothered too much by it and continued to play. I hope he will still be OK going forward.
The second was a gutless act by Craig Adams, hitting Jacob Josefson completely from behind into the corner. This was in the far end of the rink from where I sat, but all of that end got up and expressed their displeasure over the non-call. It was a dangerous play by Adams, it was an unnecessary hit by Adams, it was incredibly clear to all watching the game, and it was exactly the kind of contact the NHL is trying to crack down on. The non-call is even tougher to swallow when they called White for boarding on a more benign hit. The inconsistency is more ridiculous than a fat man in a Speedo (and just as ugly as that mental image).
I fully understand when refs want to let the players play. The Devils have undergone that recently, and it was certainly the case tonight. Fine. In general, refs are not going to call every hook, stickhold, hold, cross-check, slash, interference, and other infractions. And I know full well the Devils weren't perfect angels out there; nor were the Penguins constantly playing beyond the rules. However, these two incidents were ignored on the ice by LaRue and St. Laurent; and I'm cynical enough to know not to hold my breath for either to be reviewed. After all, Josefson wasn't injured by the play (at least I hope not) and apparently "no harm, no foul" suddenly became the new unwritten rule this evening.
I'm not going to sit here and claim conspiracy. That's giving the officials far too much credit. I can understand error, but the non-call for Adams' hit on Josefson was nothing more than incompetence.
Therefore, I really don't want to read any complaint from Penguins fans about the refereeing tonight. I will almost immediately dismiss it and I suggest that you should too. The Penguins finally got caught on an obvious hook after getting away with nearly everything else including a hit from behind by Adams and a headshot by Dupuis. LaRue and St. Laurent gave them a lot of leeway, they looked the other way too many times, and the Penguins still crossed the line. Ironic that a team who is without their best player - and quite possibly the best player in the world today - because of dangerous hits has players who do just that.
As a final point: Mario Lemieux, this is the team you own. These are your players. If you want to see the NHL clean up their act, fine. It's a noble goal. Please start with your own squad first before saying a word about anyone else's roster again.
Thanks: I didn't initially catch who hit Josefson from behind in the third period live, so I asked on Twitter for a name. Thanks to Kevin (@NonAmericanHero) and @Triumph44 for confirming it was Adams. As additional confirmation, the official play by play of the game called out Adams hitting Josefson with 4:45 left to play, which would match it up.
What did you think of tonight's game? How well did you think Devils and Penguins played? Who impressed you the most? What do you think the Devils need to work on before Sunday's game in Long Island? Please leave all your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thanks to everyone in the Gamethread for commenting and thank you for reading.