The New Jersey Devils went into tonight's game with uncertainty. At least, I was uncertain. If I didn't make it clear enough in my preview, I wasn't sure a win would have been the best result for the Devils. They didn't need the result. The Detroit Red Wings had the incentive to win this one. They have home-ice to play for. They're still in a bitter playoff battle in the Western Conference. Moreover, if the Devils won and the Flyers lost, then the possibility of the Devils moving up into the fifth seed would be real and that would be far less preferable than playing the third seed.
As it turned out, that possibility was erased tonight when Philadelphia beat the Sabres. Several minutes after that news came out and past halfway through the third period, Petr Sykora scored his twentieth of the season off a nice feed from Patrik Elias in the slot. The goal put the Devils up 2-1, which they held on to win. Thinking about it now, it's a big win.
It's big in a historical sense as it's their first victory over the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit since 1996. It's big in the short term; the Devils now have five wins in a row. While it won't mean much after Saturday, there's nothing wrong with a good run of form. It's big with respect to the season as the Devils now have 100 points in the standings. Feel free to criticize what 100 points means now, but it's nice, round number that further emphasizes how much better this season has gone compared to last season. It's also the thirteenth time in team history the Devils reached that plateau. All that and the Devils are guaranteed to play the Southeast Division winner in the first round.
The performance itself wasn't quite so big. The Red Wings came out strong in the first period. The Devils didn't get going until the shift by the third line that ended with Peter Harrold making a ridiculous cut down low and Alexei Ponikarovsky banging in the rebound to make it 1-0 NJ. The Devils finished that period strong, but they got bossed around in the second period. The Devils were lucky to escape that period 1-1. Some lines didn't have good games for one reason or another, such as the Travis Zajac line.
It wasn't all bad, though. The Devils had a pretty good third period and they did quite well after Ponikarovsky's goal. Martin Brodeur played great in net; the Elias line had a good game and the game winning goal; and Anton Volchenkov was absolutely solid in his own end. It's just that, while the Devils got the result, the performance could have been better. That said, I do understand that Detroit is an awesome team, especially at home. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh.
All the same, the Devils got the best of both worlds tonight. They won this game, hit a few milestones, and no one got hurt. Their playoff position is set, this win did not change that thanks to Philly. They can play the last game of the season as a tune-up game and really start looking ahead to the playoffs. I ultimately can't complain. For an opposition's point of view, please visit Winging it in Motown. For more of my thoughts on this win as well as a highlight video and stats, 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: You need to see this highlight video from NHL.com if only for Peter Harrold creating that first goal:
Why the Zajac Line Suffered: The unit of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajac didn't do a whole lot tonight. Parise drew a rare minor penalty from Nicklas Lidstrom, but he only had one shot on net out of two attempts. Zajac did OK at the dot by going 6-for-11 on faceoffs, but he too only had one shot on net out of two attempts. Ilya Kovalchuk only had one shot out of two attempts. There were two odd-man rushes involving this line that ended with nothing because the pass was errant. And those were among their few positive plays tonight. They were all beaten badly in Corsi: Parise and Kovalchuk were at -9 and Zajac wasn't much better at -8. They did not have a good game. Should we worry?
I say no. The head to head ice time chart reveals why they weren't effective. Here's a listing of who their most common match-ups were: Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Ericsson, Jiri Hudler, Valteri Filppula, and Todd Bertuzzi. In other words, their top two lines which contain two do-it-all forwards and their top defensive pairing which includes a legend of the game. Mike Babcock knew he had to prevent this group from doing damage and he largely succeeded. That's a big reason why those three didn't do so well.
I'd even go as far as to say it was a big reason why the Devils had a team Corsi of -8 and 21 total shots on net. If the Zajac line is kept quiet, the offense really is limited unless the lower lines have a big night on offense. Since the Red Wings are a superb possession team because they have talent up and down their lineup, that didn't happen.
Sykora Hits 20: The Elias line was the Devils' best line tonight. They were the only Devils line to finish entirely positive in Corsi and they created some of the Devils' best chances, such as Dainius Zubrus springing Elias for a one-on-one with Howard early in the third period. Of course, this line created the game winning goal, which was Sykora's twentieth of the season off Elias' 51st (!) assist of the season. It was a great pass and Sykora showed great patience to get around Howard instead of just one-timing it.
Who would have thought Sykora would have reached 20? I certainly didn't back in September and October. Milestone aside, Sykora really had a good performance overall. He was a +4 in Corsi against much of the same competition the Zajac line got. Sykora got three shots on net out of five attempts. He tied Ponikarovsky in total shots on the team tonight, and he was the only Devil to do it in each period of regulation. Sykora even backchecked well. His only misstep was flying past Datsyuk in the slot, but that was because Datsyuk skillfully cut back with the puck figuring on Sykora going past him. He did and Datsyuk hit the post on the shot. Other than that moment, the Red Wings didn't get the puck to Brodeur when he was out there at evens. They only got one actual shot on net when Sykora was on the ice. Other than that moment where he got Datsyuked, I really liked what Sykora did tonight.
Brodeur's Glove: It was simply picture-perfect tonight. I half-expected to see the following message to appear on the MSG+ broadcast: "That glove save by Brodeur is not just a stop for the Devils but also for the benefit of those with flash photography who wanted to see a pose." Seriously, Brodeur weathered a lot of attempts and 23 out of 24 shots. The one that beat him came during a rare defensive breakdown on a penalty kill that led to a makeshift two-on-one where Jiri Hudler found Tomas Holmstrom wide open on the flank. Holmstrom got the pass and he had Brodeur totally beaten on his flank for an easy score. Other than that, the Red Wings just didn't have answer for him. Brodeur kept making stops except gloveside. There, he kept making beautiful stops.
As a brief aside, congratulations to Brodeur for winning at least 30 games in a season for the fourteenth season of his career.
Defensive Struggle: In truth, holding the Red Wings to only 24 shots on net is a really big deal since they average over 30 per game. Mark Fayne and Andy Greene got the dirty work behind the Zajac line and so they were pinned back quite a bit. As did the Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador pairing, especially at times in the first and second periods. Still, they got in the way of shots - 5 for Greene - and made it difficult for Detroit to do as they wished. The team as a whole was very loose in the second period, were the Red Wings out-shot the Devils 14-4. Yet, they adjusted very well in the third period as the defense helped maintain possession, stood up players at the blueline, and really got in the way of the Red Wings in general. The result? Only 4 shots on net. That's great on it's own. It's sensational when it's in a one-shot game on the road against a fantastic home team.
The pairing that did the best in possession, and in their own end, in my opinion, was Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold. Babcock figured they were the third pairing and so he sent out his top guys against them at evens. Harrold and Volchenkov more than passed the challenge. OK, Harrold was pushed around a bit, but he held himself well. His braveness was apparent when he cut into the offensive zone which would create Ponikarovsky's goal. He actually lost the puck twice on that play, but he kept with it and made something great happen. That alone makes watching the highlight video a must.
For me, Volchenkov was a boss out there. When he was on the ice at evens, the Red Wings collectively got three shots on net out of eight attempts. That's simply wonderful against the likes of Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Filppula, and Hudler among others. Volchenkov ended up tied with Sykora for the highest Corsi on the team at +4. I'm not entirely sure why he only got 15:40 but I really liked what he did with it.
The Return of Clarkson: David Clarkson didn't play on Tuesday, but it was just a one game rest. He was OK. In summary, he did more than I thought by watching him, He got two shots on net (one of four Devils who had more than one shot on net tonight), a third attempt blocked, kept the play alive that led to Harrold's dangle and Ponikarovsky's goal, drew the team's second power play of the night, and he was a +2 in Corsi. That's all good. But I didn't see the Clarkson I'm used to seeing consistently enough for my liking. It's possible that's because it was Detroit and they weren't going to let him do as he wishes. Still, not a bad return to the lineup after missing a game.
The Return of Boulton: With Jacob Josefson injured, the Devils inserted Eric Boulton back into the lineup. He played 7:25 and actually got a shot on net in the first period. That shot was his highpoint. He didn't have too many others, as he was a -4 in Corsi. No penalties and a SOG alone are enough to consider it a good night for him.
The Special Teams Section: The Devils had a good first power play and a not so good second power play. The Red Wings converted their one power play late in the kill, thanks to a breakdown in coverage. I think the PK will be fine going forward, it was just an error more than anything else. I can say I appreciate the discipline in the game. Sure, referees Dave Jackson and Chris Lee let the players play quite a bit tonight. However, it speaks to how the Devils understood how the game would be called and that they didn't cross the line for some reason.
Detroit Is Great: The Red Wings are an excellent hockey team. Their offense came from everyone as only Franzen and Niklas Kronwall got more than two shots on net on the team. Seven other Red Wings got two. Their fourth line had some strong moments against the Devils' fourth line; Datsyuk is ridiculous with the puck; the Zetterberg line just kept driving forward; and their defense was on-point. Even when the Devils got an odd-man rush, they'd have a role in breaking it up. Jimmy Howard was solid in net and the two that beat him certainly weren't bad goals to allow. Detroit showed their strength in the game's first nine minutes and all throughout the second period. I was in awe at times at how they kept going forward. Detroit fans can feel they were the better team because they certainly were for long stretches of the game.
That makes the third period - again, only four shots allowed - and the victory even more impressive. The Devils stood toe to toe with the best of the West and have come away 1-1-1 with decent-to-good performances against them. That's not bad at all.
Thanks Philly, Your Reward is a Hated Rivalry in the First Round: I will admit, I was very pleased to see the Flyers win 2-1 against Buffalo as the Devils began the third period. I felt freer to cheer on the Devils without reservations. So I was pleased that Sykora scored and the Devils held on to win the game. So, thank you, Flyers for securing a first round match-up with Pittsburgh and ensuring the Devils get the #3 team in the East. Heh.
That's my take on this win, now I want to know yours. What did you like from the Devils' performance tonight? What do they need to improve upon before their final game of the regular season? Did you feel better when you saw the Philly result, knowing it was OK if the Devils won or not? What impressed you more, that play by Harrold for the first goal or Elias' pass to Sykora for his goal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's 2-1 in the comments. Thanks to those who commented in the gamethread and followed along on Twitter @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.