They did it. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
They've done it. The New Jersey Devils won Game 7 and their first playoff series since 2007.
Before this game, I said that I didn't care who on the Devils makes it happen, I didn't care when the Devils make it happen, and I especially didn't care how the Devils do it. All I wanted was a win by any means necessary. I think it's fair to say that most New Jersey Devils fans would agree with that sentiment. In Game 7, the who was Adam Henrique, the when was 3:47 into double overtime, and the how was, well, harrowing and nerve-wracking until Henrique won a loose puck and fired a wrist shot right in between the legs of Jose Theodore. They've done it.
Let's take a step back to get an idea of how the Devils got into this situation. They were up against the wall after Game 5. The Devils were shutout 3-0 in Sunrise, they were outworked and outplayed, and so they ended up on the brink of elimination. They needed to play as big as possible in Game 6 to stay alive in the series. This is when it became "Death or Glory" mode in my mind. While they were the better team in the run of play, Florida was able to equalize in regulation and keep it tied to force overtime. About five and half minutes into overtime, Travis Zajac wonderfully finished off an end-to-end play to secure a Game 7 and give the New Jersey Devils faithful at the Rock and around the world something to celebrate. The Devils earned an extra life in the series. The Devils earned a shot at a Game 7. They've done it then and now they had to, well, do it a second time in a row.
For the most part, the first period was similar to the first periods of the last three games. Mostly even in shots and in attempts; the Panthers had more of the former and the Devils had an edge in the latter. The Devils went up 1-0 early when Adam Henrique deflected a shot by Anton Volchenkov that found it's way through traffic and Theodore. It was an early lead and the Devils didn't relent. A good start and the Devils were forty minutes away from getting the job done.
The second period turned out to be one of the more dominating periods of this entire 2011-12 campaign. The Panthers had an early surge but they kept firing pucks wide and away. As time went on, the Devils just shut them down. Every forward line had at least one backchecker making a play. The defensemen were on point in beating the Panthers at their own dump-and-chase game and killing off attacks before they started. The Devils definitely didn't just defend. Oh no, they turned up their own offensive game. They out-shot the Panthers 11-2, Stephen Gionta put home a loose puck off a blocked Peter Harrold shot to make it 2-0, and they just owned the ice. A great second period meant the the Devils were twenty minutes away from getting the job done.
Then Florida realized their situation. Down two, at home, and in a Game 7 win-or-go-golfing situation, the Panthers realized it was now-or-never. They came out like they were on fire. They started making their passes more often in the neutral zone, they crashed the net in both figurative and literal senses (a Florida goal was wiped out due to a Shawn Mattias goaltender interference call), and they just kept coming. Martin Broduer stood tall, the Devils skaters were desparate, but what killed them were the power plays. Yes, the Devils gifted them three power plays in the third period and Florida scored on two of them. Stephen Weiss slammed in a perfect one-timer in a 3-on-4 situation thanks to Harrold grabbing Kris Versteeg's arm in a 4-on-4 situation in front of a ref. Marcel Goc got the dramatic equalizer on their last power play, finishing up a loose puck at the crease. The Panthers surged, the Devils had no answer, and everyone became incredibly frightened. A two goal lead erased and overtime was coming. The Devils weren't done but it sure felt like it at times.
Overtime is incredibly nerve wracking because hockey, by it's nature, is a funny game. A goal can from a fluke as much as a great play; and even the great plays have some breaks going their way. That this can decide a playoff series is just agonizing. You're hoping it happens for your favorite team while silently and mentally praying it doesn't happen against your favorite team. While it was 20 minutes, it felt like a blur between all of the long passes each team tried and the offensive pressure both teams traded off. The Devils got 9 shots and Theodore came up big on all of them. Brodeur was even bigger as he robbed John Madden on a third-chance rebound among the other nine shots. A second overtime was needed as the game entered the wee hours of Friday morning. Neither team was done yet.
The feeling continued and the pace slowed a bit since almost everyone was tired. I must say almost because Adam Henrique was motoring all night long. He got two one-on-ones with Theodore where he didn't score but drew penalties on both. He just missed on some other close shots. He nearly got a goal in the first OT when he just drove to the net and hoped to get around Theodore. Henrique was in constant motion tonight, the feature player on a third line that was actually effective for the first time this series. Henrique had no doubt when he took that puck that eluded Mattias and just ripped it on net. It went in. Henrique did it. His line did it. The Devils did it. Two straight playoff wins. Two straight overtime wins. Four wins out of seven games. They actually did it.
It was the long, hard, and painful at times, but they can hold up their heads up high and say they succeeded. Congratulations to the New Jersey Devils. Next up: Philadelphia on Sunday.
For an opposition's take, please see Chris S Roberts' recap at Litter Box Cats. For even more thoughts, stats, and a highlight video of this important victory, please continue on after the jump.
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 Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Highlight Video:
For some reason, it's not yet ready. When that's up, I'll update this with the right video. Until then, here's your first round series winning goal by Adam Henrique. The full highlight video is up from NHL.com, here it is:
The Series Winning Goal Video: You know what, this deserves it's own video. Watch it:
And, yes, I will break this goal down in the near future.
Henrique's Stats: Here's more proof of Henrique's excellent night. First: he had three shots on net, two blocked, and four missed. Two of those three shots were goals, and his total of nine shooting attempts was the most on the team. Yes, he had as many as Zach Parise (9), more than Ilya Kovalchuk and Marek Zidlicky (8 each), and Patrik Elias (7). For a guy on a line with David Clarkson and Alexei Ponikarovsky which hasn't done much all series long against Florida's bottom six, that's a great output. Of course, so were the goals. He also managed to finish a +3 in Corsi and +5 in Fenwick, which is pretty good considering how the team did (Fenwick: -5; Corsi: -4).
The only downsides to Henrique's night was that A) he didn't score on his one-on-ones with Theodore and B) he got pounded on faceoffs. Seriously, he was 4-for-15. Am I going to complain? Not really. Henrique put up a large amount of shooting attempts for any one player much less someone like him who doesn't attempt a lot of shots and, oh yeah, the playoff series winning goal in double overtime. I feel that outweighs it all. Henrique was awesome.
Called Out: What wasn't awesome was the Devils' discipline at times. OK, I think it was garbage for David Clarkson to get two for diving when Ed Jovanovski hit him high behind the play in the first period. I know clotheslines are in pro-wrestling, but that doesn't mean anyone who's hit by them is selling the move. Other than that, we got to see some real face-palmers by the Devils. Bryce Salvador interfering with Sean Bergenheim in the second wasn't smart; but at least the Devils killed that. They didn't kill Peter Harrold grabbing Versteeg's arm after a flurry of penalties (including Clarkson high-sticking Mike Weaver on a power play) - which made it a 3-on-4 and led to an eventual goal. Marek Zidlicky has been very solid in this series and productive tonight with six shots on net, but his clearance over the glass in the third period was just heinous. He hasn't made too many mistakes, but that one was big and it turned out to be costly.
I've said all series long, you've read and heard about it all series long, and I'm sure you said it yourself all season long: the Devils need to stay out of the box. The PK got blown up in this series; and the Florida power play got hot and took advantage in order to stay in games like this one. While the PK issues need to be addressed, the best penalty kill is not taking one to begin with. Yet, the Devils took at least three avoidable calls tonight, which allowed Florida back into it. This lack of discipline is a reason why the series went to seven games and it needs to change quickly.
Because It's The Cup Pt. 1: Early on in the game, not long after Henrique's first goal, John Madden got blown up in the neutral zone. He went straight down to the ice and his nose was busted. There was a legitimate concern that he was seriously hurt. What happened was that Tomas Kopecky, his linemate, just ran into him and the two collided at the helmet. Did Madden return? Of course. He got his nose patched up, played 12:26, got absolutely robbed by Brodeur in overtime, and ended up a +3 in Corsi. Why? Because it's the Cup.
The Devils Ended Up Not Better at 5-on-5 Tonight (A Lot of Words about Possession): In the first two periods, the Devils went up 2-0, out-shot the Panthers 20-14, and the Corsi and Fenwick values were stupidly high for New Jersey. Normally, teams will play to a score and the Panthers just didn't in the second period. The Devils really clamped down on them and turned those stops into offense. The Devils finished the second at +13 in Corsi and +10 in Fenwick.
The third period changed all that. The Panthers did benefit greatly from three power plays where they got two goals out of five shots. In between those calls, the Panthers just kept skating forward to attack. They ended up out-shooting the Devils 14-5 at evens and applying all kinds of pressure. They let up on the dump-and-chase and just skated the puck in more. The Weiss line was mixed up such that it was Scottie Upshall, Versteeg, and Weiss streaking forward. Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Mattias put rubber on net. Sean Bergenheim showed off his speed and made some plays happen. Because Florida kept pressing, the Devils often had to clear the puck away just to get a change instead of attacking in response. Believe me, I wanted the Devils to attack but Florida put everything they had into that third period. Understandably so given that it was a Game 7 situation on home ice. They weren't going to flop. Anyway, it was enough to drop the Devils into negative values.
The play was more even in OT, but Florida managed more attempts in addition to shots on net. The majority of the period was at 5-on-5 so every action drove the Devils down to about -6 in Corsi and -4 in Fenwick. It was at this point where it was clear: the prior games didn't matter, the Panthers knew they needed to be stronger at evens and they accomplished that. Martin Brodeur made plenty of bailout saves as the game opened up. Double OT only had one shot - Henrique's winner - but the few attempts got the Devils to -5 in Fenwick and -4 in Corsi. Florida had the edge in possession and did it in beyond the second. Credit them for getting their minds right.
So who suffered? Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Travis Zajac collectively put up a third of the Devils' 36 shots on net. Yet, they sort of cancelled out their match-up against the Weiss line. Zajac was a +1 Corsi, Kovalchuk was at -3, and Parise was at zero. The same went for the Elias line, which has been very good in Corsi but not so prolific in shots in this series. Tonight, they were about cancelled out against the Goc line as well.
The fourth line got pinned back quite a bit. While Stephen Gionta impressively scored a goal off a loose puck in the second period, the fourths spent much of their time in their own end. Gionta was the best of the three at -5 Corsi; Steve Bernier was the worst at -10; and Ryan Carter was in the middle at -7. If you wanted to know why you rarely saw them in OT, then that would help explain why.
Lastly, the Devils coaches correctly decided to protect Peter Harrold and Anton Volchenkov. They're the weakest pairing, so the other four defensemen had to withstand most of the onslaught in OT and in the third period. Therefore, Harrold and Volchenkov have positive Corsi values (+10 for A-Train!); while Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, and Mark Fayne were forced to do more in their own end. It's an understandable trade-off; but it just led to a possession cycle of Florida attack -> Devils eventual stop -> clear/dump-in - > Florida attack.
I See It Now: For the last few games, I've been harangued about the status of Ilya Kovalchuk. I didn't think he was really that slow and given how the Panthers have played in this series, there wasn't a lot of room for anyone to be fast. Since tonight's game was more open, I could definitely tell that Kovalchuk wasn't going at full speed. Everyone who wants to say I told you so can now say it.
This isn't to say he was lazy. He did what he had to do to succeed. You don't get five shots on net and eight attempts by dogging it. Here's some anecdotal examples, too. In a first period 4-on-4 situation, Kovalchuk got one of the few successful defenses against Florida by winning puck in his own corner and carrying it all the way to the opposite corner in Florida's end. For another example, Kovalchuk was battling around the net and in the offensive corner with Parise even late into the first overtime. For a third example, one of the last chances in the second period came when Martin Brodeur saw Kovalchuk streak through the left side of the neutral zone. Brodeur played him into the zone with a long pass which he collected, got past his initial defender, and put a shortside wrist shot on net. Kovalchuk could have done more at times (that line could have done more at times); but he certainly wasn't useless or a non-factor.
Yet, in a game where long passes became more common place, particularly in the first overtime, I really wished Kovalchuk would find that extra gear and use it. I know it was late in the game and maybe the Devils wouldn't really utilize it given some of their attempted stretch passes, but it would have been an additional and useful weapon to go against Florida. I can see why some have questioned his healthy. I do question whether this injury is that significant. I don't see how the coaches give him 27+ minutes overall and the third more minutes at even strength if it was hampering him that much. I know it's the playoffs, but if he was hurting himself and the team, then wouldn't he get fewer minutes? It's not like he was as slow as, say, Petr Sykora, either. The passes that did not work wouldn't be caused by the injury unless it's in his ability to read plays, either.
Because It's the Cup Pt. 2: There was only one penalty in overtime: Versteeg violently slashing Salvador's hand in the Devils' left corner. It had to be called. Salvador was clearly hurt as he went right off the ice after a whistle. I don't know what the damage was, but Salvador needed medical attention. Later in that overtime, #24 was back on the ice, defending as he normally does. I don't know whether his hand was taped up or adrenaline took over for the pain; but Salvador played through it. Why? Because it's the Cup.
Marty's Better: Martin Brodeur had no chance on the Weiss goal, no chance on the Goc goal, and he was perfect at even strength. I hate to use the c-word, but Brodeur made some clutch saves. His three saves down low in OT. His big stops in the third period when Florida was just rolling into New Jersey's end at even strength. Brodeur played the rebounds very well, he controlled the puck properly behind his net, and he was tough. That's right, tough. Brodeur had more than his fair share of bodies crashing into him tonight and it did not deter him one bit. Brodeur kept this game from spiraling out of the control even if the play by the Devils skaters indicated otherwise. It's an open question whether Brodeur was better in Game 7 or Game 4. That I'm wondering it at all means Brodeur was awesome tonight as well.
Jose Theodore wasn't too bad himself. He withstood plenty of the Devils' attack in the first two periods and in the first overtime, Henrique's one-on-one chances, and he came out ahead. There was nothing he could do on Henrique's first goal, and he couldn't do much of anything about Gionta's goal. Unfortunately for him, the last image for the 2011-12 Florida Panthers was Henrique's shot going right in between his legs. Theodore was doing so well; he just got caught a little slow like the Panthers were on that play - and Henrique made him pay.
Respect: I think Devils fans should give plenty of credit to the Florida Panthers. This was the match-up most fans wanted and they got more than they bargained for. On paper, we at ILWT thought it would be a challenge but the Devils would win earlier. Not so. The Panthers played the Devils tough. Kevin Dineen got his players to play a conservative, defensive style to avoid getting beaten in open play and it worked pretty well. The Weiss line was quelled at evens, but Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, and Mikael Samuelsson each had a very good series. Their bottom six did well enough against New Jersey's, too. Their defensemen threatened from distance, and Mike Weaver showed me that he's a very good defensive defenseman. The Panthers' power play got hot and they didn't let up - they embraced it and built off of it. The more advanced numbers may not reflect well on Florida, but we can go over that at a later date.
Remember, this is a results-oriented tournament and the Panthers earned three wins and took the Devils to the limit in Game 7. They certainly weren't bad. I can understand that the Panthers are disappointed, angry, upset, and unhappy. I get that - they did lose in a Game 7 they could have taken. I will say this: they have no reason to be ashamed of their performance.
Additionally, I have to echo Kevin's post at LBC and thank Donny, Kevin, Chris, Ryan, John, and Alexander and the larger community at Litter Box Cats. There was no cross-blog drama or trouble or anything like that. Everyone was cool with each other. That's good because LBC is a very good Florida Panthers site and if you want to know about them or support them, then that's the place you need to go to every day.
One Final Thought via A Link to a .GIF: YES YES YES (thanks Kevin)
But let's not talk about the second round now. Let's talk about tonight's win. I want to know your take on tonight's win. Outside of Henrique and Brodeur, who on the Devils impressed you? How did you feel going into the third period after that awesome second period? How did you feel going into overtime after that Florida-dominated third period? How did you react when Goc tied it up? Did you think that the Devils had a chance? How did you react when Henrique scored in double overtime? How does this heroic goal by Henrique rank with past overtime winners by the Devils in the playoffs? How do you feel now that the Devils won a playoff series - satisfied or hungry for more? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's dramatic Game 7 in the comments.
Thank you to everyone who followed and/or commented in the Gamethread. Thank you to everyone who followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter among the myriad of #NJDevils tweets. Thank you to everyone who believed, supported, and/or hoped that New Jersey would take this game. Most of all, thank you for reading.