In tonight's 4-1 win by the New Jersey Devils over the Buffalo Sabres, two players stood out from everyone else on the ice. Two players didn't bring their "A" games, they each displayed their "A+" work at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York. Two players made highlights happen and fully deserve to be in all of them on Tuesday morning. Two players were simply sensational and could not be stopped by conventional means. Two players were more than a big reason why the Devils won 4-1 tonight, they were massive. Those two players were Devils forward Ilya Kovalchuk and Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
I'm struck with awe to see players at their best just continue to excel against what happens on the ice. That's all one can do, really. One simply just can't take your eyes off of them when the game is at hand because they were so dominant on the ice. When #17 stepped on the ice, the Devils made things happen going forward. When the Sabres attacked and/or the Devils got loose in their own end, #30 made sure it wouldn't be an issue. Both players were instrumental to their team's success in opposite ends of the rink.
Notice that I didn't say "surprised." Both players have been playing some excellent hockey as of late. Brodeur is playing like vintage Brodeur, making crazy stops and keeping the play flowing. Brodeur was brilliant with the glove tonight, he was great in reacting to Buffalo getting open looks on loose pucks early on, and he didn't sag when the Devils got the lead. 22 shots by Sabres at even strength were all stopped; as were the 4 power play shots and 3 shorthanded shots. Buffalo tried traffic in front, they tried surprising him on rebounds, they tried almost everything and the Sabres just couldn't get one past Brodeur. He was the main reason why Buffalo didn't get back into this game. In fact, no Sabre truly beat him tonight. A bad break for NJ, a botched clearance by Dainius Zubrus by the right post got past Brodeur. That was Buffalo's lone goal - an own goal by Zubrus. When that's the only blemish on the record, the goaltender had a great night in net. There can be no complaints about how Brodeur is playing as of right now.
There can be only one complaint about how Kovalchuk played: he had a lot of his shots blocked. Nine, in fact. That's a lot. In other news, Kovalchuk had way more than 9 attempts on goal. I could go into a lot of details, but for the sake of expediency, I'm just going to break down what he did rather quickly. Kovalchuk drew two of the seven minor penalties Buffalo took tonight. Kovalchuk played 13:30 at even strength, 10:24 on the power play, and 1:24 on the penalty kill. Kovalchuk saw a lot of Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera at evens and forced Buffalo to mix up his line's match-up during the game. Kovalchuk was a +6 in Fenwick and +8 in Corsi. Kovalchuk attempted 18 shots on net; 9 were blocked, 2 missed, and 7 on net. (This doesn't include one post he hit.) Of his 7 shots, Kovalchuk scored on 3 of them. That's right, Kovalchuk scored his first hat trick as a New Jersey Devil. On top of that, he assisted on the one goal he didn't score tonight. Kovalchuk was simply a cut above every other skater on the ice tonight. To think, we thought we saw the best from Kovalchuk earlier this month, but this is a new level.
As great as those two were tonight (as were other Devils), this was not an easy 4-1 win. Buffalo came out hard, they were seemingly everywhere in the first period, and pressed to get back in the game in the second and third periods. They didn't give up on their efforts until they had to when their seventh penalty of the night essentially killed the game. Buffalo's playoff hopes may be incredibly dim at this point, but they were tenacious. They will give opposing teams problems. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us Devils supporters, Brodeur and Kovalchuk were among the best hockey players in the world in Buffalo and they ensured that the Devils would triumph.
I have more thoughts on tonight's 4-1 win after the jump. For an opposition point of view, please check out Die by the Blade.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Chart | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlights: Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first hat trick as a Devil. Even if you saw the game, you've got to check out this highlight video of the game from NHL.com to see it again. Especially the first one he scored.
Other Devils Who Crushed It Tonight: The media's three stars were Kovalchuk, Brodeur, and Adam Henrique. I felt Henrique had a good night. He was a +6 in Corsi, his play to lead the 3-on-2 rush for Kovalchuk's second goal was great as his pass, and Henrique also got the primary assist on Petr Sykora's power play goal. What wasn't so good from him was that he only attempted two shots on net (one got on net) and he went 5-for-12 on faceoffs. But it's not a bad choice.
I personally would have given the third star to Zach Parise. While Kovalchuk will deservedly get a lot of press and praise for his performance, Parise was also great. Parise also drew two penalties and had a whopping 7 shots on net. All 7 attempts went at Ryan Miller. I felt he should have been credited for two misses on rebound plays where his backhand just sailed. Still, Parise was the Devils' best possession player at +9 Corsi and +7 Fenwick and he was motoring on like Kovalchuk. Parise only picked up an assist on Kovalchuk's third goal, the empty net goal where Parise attempted to feed Kovalchuk once, the play got broken up and somehow Parise blocked the clearance to give Kovalchuk a second chance - which he buries. It was a lot of work, but that's precisely what Parise did tonight.
I want to give some love to Anton Volchenkov too. While the defense tended to bend without breaking, Volchenkov really was solid as a rock. He led the Devils in even strength ice time with 18:29 as Peter DeBoer correctly relied on the defender to get stops. He often saw Buffalo's most dangerous players and he came out ahead with a +2 Corsi. Volchenkov was on point in holding their top line of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Derek Roy to a combined 7 shots on net - and one of them was credited to Pominville only because he last touched the puck before Buffalo's only score. That's a solid effort from a defender who has seemingly thrived with increased responsibilities.
Devils Who Were Crushed: Fourth liners, please stand up! The debut of Stephane Veilleux was really bad. I know it's his first game as a Devil, but he reminded me of Tim Sestito out there at times. He was constantly pinned back and was limited to only 4:34 and 7 shifts. In that short timeframe, he somehow managed to become -7 in Corsi. That's just terrible. Veilleux didn't play at all in the third period and with good reason. Buffalo knew to pick on that fourth line.
A big reason for that would be Cam Janssen. In his 6 shifts that lasted 4:28, three of them ran 49 seconds or over. Anyone who ever saw Janssen play at this level knows that when he's out there for a while, it's never a good thing. On his first long shift, he got pinned back, couldn't make a play to help himself or his team out, and he was only bailed out when Bryce Salvador cleared a puck - that came from Janssen's side of the ice - over the glass. On his second, he got pinned back, couldn't make a play to help himself or his team out, and the puck got behind the net. That's when Jason Pominville got it, attempted to pass it to Vanek for a close shot, and it missed Vanek - only for Dainius Zubrus to get it and accidentally fire it at Brodeur's shoulder and into the net. I'm not saying Janssen caused that goal to happen, but what I am saying is that when Janssen's on the ice for a long time, good things aren't happening. By the by, that was his last shift of the night.
Jacob Josefson played a little bit more with an occasional shift here and there in the third. It's clear DeBoer thinks more of him than Veilleux or Janssen, but I can't say Josefson did a lot to deserve much more than the 7:18 he got. He was a -6 in Corsi, went 2-for-5 on draws, and was the only fourth liner to attempt a shot. I think he can do more when he doesn't have terrible linemates but with the way the team is now, he's the odd center out of the top three lines.
Anyway, that's it for the forwards as far as who got crushed. I want to say the defensive effort as a whole had panicky moments. That first period featured the Sabres blocking clearances, beating Devils cleanly to loose pucks for quick shots that may or may not have hit the net, and just creating havok along the boards. Early on, the Devils were just poor in the corners. I can say that improved. The Devils didn't really sharpen up too much in general as that continued through the second and third periods. And I'm not just picking on the defenders, this includes backchecking forwards. As a whole, the Devils allowed 30 shots on net (29 from Sabres) and Brodeur really had to be on his game tonight.
If I were to pick on a defenseman, I'd have to look at the third pairing. I wasn't bothered too much by Kurtis Foster, to be honest. I felt bad for him that his stick broke on him twice in his own end. I felt Matt Taormina was more troublesome in his own end. He was beaten to pucks, he was caught in awkward positions, and was generally beaten on. DeBoer must have thought the same based on their ice time. Taormina only got 11:59 whereas Foster only got 15:56. If I'm Taormina, I shrug this game off and work on my positioning. After all, he's got a case to make to stay on the team when Adam Larsson returns.
Powerful Play: Kovalchuk wanted the Devils to draw more power plays and the Devils did just that. More appropriately, the Sabres committed more fouls that were easy for the ref to call. All three tripping calls they took were clear to the refs and the audience; and Mike Weber's cross-check at the end of the second period was egregious and stupid as it was during a Christian Ehrhoff minor for tripping. The Devils got 7 power plays which lasted 11:39, and it included a 47 second 5-on-3. How did they do?
The bad news was that the Devils wasted their fourth power play after an excellent chance within the first 15 seconds; the 5-on-3 was never fully taken advantage of thanks to losing the opening faceoff and dumping it in afterwards; and the Devils did allow 3 shorthanded shots. The very good news is that the Devils made the most of their other power plays. They got 16 of their 31 shots on net on power plays. Seriously. David Clarkson was feature part of the power play with all 5 of his shots on goal coming during man advantages. Patrik Elias was comfortable in the left circle, calmly controlling the puck. Parise was able to get looks down low for 4 SOG, Kovalchuk was able to get looks from distance for 3 SOG and a goal, and they had possession for most of their man advantages. As far as power play performances go, this was clearly one of their better nights.
Most of all, the Devils converted two of their power plays. Kovalchuk finished off a give-and-go through the Sabres' box PK formation with Patrik Elias to convert their second opportunity, beat Ryan Miller cleanly, and create a lovely highlight. The Devils converted on the PP after the 5-on-3 when Petr Sykora fired a shot that took a great deflection off Andrej Sekera's stick to beat Ryan Miller. That second conversion was important as it got the Devils a 2-1 lead early in the third period. Kovalchuk got what he wanted and they made Buffalo pay dearly for their crimes. I also liked what the Devils did on their last power play. Derek Roy took a really stupid tripping call in New Jersey's end of the rink and the Devils just kept possession. They attempted a few shots to keep the Sabres honest; but the order was to keep it simple. They did, it ran off the clock, and it essentially iced the game before Kovalchuk's hard earned (seriously, the Sabres tried really hard to prevented and almost succeeded) empty net goal.
The Other Half of Special Teams: The Devils fortunately only took two penalties, one silly clearance over the glass by Salvador and one silly trip by Andy Greene in an act of retaliation. The Sabres got 4 shots on net, but the Devils were pretty good about getting clearances all the way to the end of the rink. The PK did a solid job as usual and since Brodeur was on his game, the kills were academic. The only notable thing about it is that Kovalchuk drew his second penalty near the end of the first kill - in that Derek Roy hauled him down from behind to make sure Parise didn't spring him for a one-on-one with the goaltender. He did it before the pass, mind.
Oops: I thought Christian Ehrhoff was ill and wouldn't play tonight. Well, he did and played 20:07.
Credit the Sabres: I have to say, the Sabres really are a tenacious team. With some better luck and much better discipline, they could have made this game a lot more interesting. Brad Boyes and his snakebit season continued when he got robbed on an early rebound and later on a dangerous shot from distance. Drew Stafford got 5 shots on net and Brodeur denied all of them. They made the Devils skate hard and when they stretched for the puck or misfired on a pass, a Sabre skater was almost always there to take full advantage. Even when the Sabres made a mistake, they recovered very well to prevent Miller from being hung out to dry. They crashed like crazy to prevent the initial empty net goal attempts by the Devils. I think their season was done earlier, but you could have fooled me from how they played. They were competitive, fast, tough, and they're not going to be a doormat to anyone.
Team Corsi: That all said, the Devils ended up only -3 in Corsi. That's not bad considering one line was really pushing the play forward the most. Fenwick isn't as kind with -6. That low figure can be mitigated by the amount of power play time for the Devils as well as score effects. Still, it's something to keep an eye on.
Poor Zubrus, He (and His Line) Wasn't So Bad: Zubrus really didn't intend to put the puck in his own net. He was behind Vanek, he knew he could get to the puck, and I think he just wanted to chip it away. Instead, his blade curled it up high, inside the right post, off Brodeur and in. We can laugh about the own goal now, but I'm sure he felt terrible about it. It wasn't like Zubrus was too bad either. While he was a -2 in Corsi, he did get a shot on goal, helped set up Alexei Ponikarovsky for his 3 SOG (and one other shot that glanced the post), and he went 11-for-18 on faceoffs. Most of all, he was crushing Sabres along the boards on dump-ins and forechecks with Steve Bernier and Ponikarovsky. That line is huge on paper and in person. With a little more time together, I think they can wreck some real, legal havok. I look forward to seeing said havok in the future.
Sykora Back on the Board: His one power play goal may have been the result of a fortunate deflection. He may have been denied by the crossbar for an empty net try not long after Miller attempted to go to the bench. He wasn't very good in Corsi at -5. He only had one shot on goal, which was his goal. But Sykora scored his first goal since January 19. I don't know about a Sykora comeback, but he's back on the scoreboard and that's the first step. Good for him.
Good News: Lindy Ruff was behind the Buffalo bench. While I can't say he is pleased about tonight's game, I was pleased to see him recover enough to be there. Hopefully, his ribs will heal and he can go back to his normal business.
A Postscript for a Post That's Not Up Until 12 PM on 2/15: Tomorrow's post is all about third period performances by the New Jersey Devils. It does not include this game, but I do have to say that this was one of the better ones. Tonight was one of the few times this season the Devils won the game in the third period with three goals. They also held the opposition to no goals and out-shot them 12-10; both not common occurrences for the Devils. While it got dicey at times and it forced Brodeur to bail out the team a few times, I have to hope the Devils can keep up this kind of third period play in future games.
One Last Thought: With 56 points, Kovalchuk is now among the top ten players in scoring. I think he's having a good season. How about you?
Now it's time to have your say. What do you think of Ilya Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur now? Did you also think they were dominant? Who else on the Devils impressed you tonight? Does the 16 power play shots on net make up for the fact that the Devils only got 15 on net at evens (Buffalo got 23)? Who or what about the Devils performance bothered you the most? What do the Devils need to improve upon before their game against Anaheim on Friday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's win over the Sabres in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented and read the gamethread as well as my occasional tweets from @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.