I never thought I would ever use Stephen Gionta in the headline for a NHL game recap post. According to the archives at In Lou We Trust, I never did. Now I can because Stephen Gionta scored his first goal in the NHL, which turned out ot be the game winning goal in today's 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. The first non-empty net goal of the 2011-12 regular season was scored by Zach Parise. Gionta scored the last non-empty net goal of the 2011-12 regular season. The former is expected - Parise takes a lot of shots and scores goals. The latter is a surprise. Stephen Gionta scoring? To win a game? Yes, that happened.
The play itself wasn't particularly complex. Alexei Ponikarovsky powered around Daniel Alfredsson and kept the puck away with his stick. He pushes it on net, which is stopped by Craig Anderson with his right pad. Now, Ponikarovsky drove to the net on Anderson's left so the right pad stop put the puck just outside of the crease in the center. Stephen Gionta was driving to the center of the net this whole time so as the puck came out, Gionta just got to the puck and chipped it in. All the while, Sergei Gonchar was just unaware of Gionta and did nothing to stop him. That's how Gionta scored his first NHL goal. He just drove to the net in the hopes his teammate would do something positive and he took advantage. He did in one game what Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen, Tim Sestito, and all of the other fourth-line-only players did not or could not do all season.
Gionta's goal was great and it capped off a very good performance. Getting another shot at the NHL must have given him extra motivation to hustle, because he was just a whirlwind out there. He was good at the dot by going 5-for-8. He got two shots on net out of four attempts; both more than what would we normally see from any fourth line player. Gionta ended up at zero Corsi, which in of itself is a feat since the fourth line usually gets wrecked in possession. However, Gionta only got there because blocks against. According to Fenwick - shots and misses only - he finished at +5, which was the second highest value on the team. For someone who was with Ryan Carter and Cam Janssen for much of his 10:38 of ice time, that's really, really good. Gionta was named the first star of today's game by the attending media, and I'd say he actually deserved the accolades.
Today's game was essentially meaningless. The Devils and Senators knew their playoff positions were set. Both teams didn't play like they didn't care. There were points that they did, but I can't say it was through the hole game. The shot count ended up at 35-33 in favor of New Jersey. You can't get to 30 shots on net and not care about a game. I can say they made a point of it to not try to pick up an injury and didn't go full-bore at each other like in the last Devils-Senators game, for example. As it turned out, the Devils pulled ahead in the third period thanks to some strong goaltending and enough of an offense to keep the other team honest. They will enter the playoffs with a six game winning streak and feeling really good. Thanks, in part, to Stephen Gionta of all players.
For the opposition's perspective, Amelia L at silver Seven has this recap. For further thoughts as well as links to stats and a highlight video of today's game, 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 Game Highlights: The highlights of today's game are in the following embedded video from NHL.com. You'll see some strong Martin Brodeur saves, an incredible gaffe by Brodeur, a 5-on-1 PP rush, a sick far post shot by Ilya Kovalchuk, and Stephen Gionta scoring a goal. If that's not enough to get you to watch it, then I don't know what else to say:
The Performance: As noted prior to the jump, this game featured a lot of shots on net. Both Martin Brodeur and Craig Anderson had to be on point because they faced a lot of rubber. Similar to the last Ottawa-New Jersey game, there was a lot of open, up-and-down action. Defense was mostly reactive as both teams looked to, and succeeded, at shooting the puck.
That said, it wasn't a very good performance by either team because they could have done so much more. The Senators botched their own attacks by firing pucks astray or into Devils' bodies. The Devils' forecheck was good but they had several situations where they would win a puck or force a turnover in the neutral zone and lose the puck before a player could get a shot on net. Sometimes the puck just bounced away. Sometimes the player just duffed the shot. Sometimes they just weren't fully aware about what they could have done. While both teams got a lot of rubber on net, I couldn't help but feel that more could have been done on offense.
In terms of possession, the Devils finished at +5 Fenwick and -2 in Corsi. That disparity justifies to me that this was a close game rather than the Devils having an edge or not. The Senators got more attempts at even strength overall, but that difference was in blocks so it's questionable whether it was an appreciable difference.
You Nearly Blew It, But Then You Went Ahead And Totally Redeemed Yourself: The Devils had three power plays in this afternoon and they converted on two of them. That's all well and good by itself. What was interesting is that the Devils struggled on their power plays before they scored.
The first one did nothing of note unless you think mishandled passes were of note. The second one seemed more of the same until Patrik Elias picked up a Peter Harrold pass (miss?) off the boards into the zone. He had space and Kovalchuk darted to his right. Elias fed Kovalchuk, Kovalchuk readied his shot, and put one far post past a surprised Anderson. It was a great shot on a power play that wasn't doing so much. The third power play actually had Ottawa in New Jersey's end for a bit. The Sens pressed down low until a third one tried to get to Kovalchuk, who had the puck, along the boards in his own end. Kovalchuk took the hit but he dished it off to Marek Zidlicky. With three Sens back, all five Devils forwards charged up ice, Petr Sykora started the entry into the zone and he finished Adam Henrique's pass. Again, a great play after a very little by the power play units.
At the end of the day, it's two goals on three power play shots. I'm not going to complain about that. I will say, though, that the power plays units were more productive than effective and there is a difference between the two.
Best in the World: On April 1, CM Punk and Chris Jericho battled at Wrestlemania 28 partially because Jericho took offense to Punk's claims that he's the best in the world. So it goes in pro wrestling. Today, we learned they're both wrong. Dave Barr and New Jersey Devils PK units are the best in the world. Barr and the players put together a penalty killing unit that set a new post-1967 record in penalty killing success rate with two successful kills. The Devils finished the season at 89.52% with only 27 power play goals allowed on 257 opportunities. They also scored 15 shorthanded goals, putting their 4-on-5 goal differential at -9 (15 scored, 24 allowed in 4-on-5 situations). In a word: Wow. A top penalty kill doesn't get a championship belt, but they will be remembered for their accomplishment.
Putting In Work: With the Devils giving their fourth line over eight minutes of ice time, one would be led to believe that the other units got some rest. Not so. Thanks in part to special teams and the closeness of the game's score until the very end, there were some Devils who got over twenty minutes of ice time.
At forward, the two big minute guys were Kovalchuk (23:04) and Parise (21:05). Both played well. Parise led the Devils with six shots on net, chipped the puck forward for Kovalchuk to ice the game late, and generally forechecked well. Kovalchuk was even better with five shots on net out of seven attempts, the first and last goals of the game, and kept moving in both zones. I say Kovalchuk was better because he had the team's best Fenwick and Corsi values at +6 and +5, respectively. It helps the argument that Kovalchuk was the best player in this game. It's also weird since Kovalchuk mostly played with Parise and Travis Zajac all game long and they finished lower than Kovalchuk in Fenwick and Corsi. Parise was a +2 in Fenwick and a -1 in Corsi while Zajac was even in Fenwick and a -1 in Corsi. How Kovalchuk did that much better when he wasn't double-shifted all that much, I really do not know. In any case, both forwards had a large workload this afternoon and they did quite well.
The defense put in more minutes. Marek Zidlicky played the most 25:20 and did mostly OK against the line of Alfredsson, Kyle Turris, and Nick Foligno. He didn't look so good on Jim O'Brien's goal since the goal scorer was on his side of the end; but he was in a no man's land stuck down low as the play developed. In any case, he continues to eat minutes and show that he's more than a third pairing defenseman. Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, and Mark Fayne all played over 20 minutes and were decent at cleaning things up. I can't say any Devils defenseman played well positionally given that Brodeur faced 33 shots, but they weren't torched repeatedly.
The Return of the Rookie?: Adam Larsson finally got back onto the ice after being scratched since March 25. I can't say he really did well. I liked how he started. I even said so online during the game.
Then a few minutes later, he makes a heinous turnover to Colin Greening (aside: Greening was incredibly active with six shots on net), forcing Brodeur to bail him out with a save near the end of the first period. CORRECTION: Nope, it wasn't Larsson who made that turnover; it was Greene. I saw the wrong number and didn't check the video until now. Thanks to C.J. for pointing it out.
Overall, Larsson did some nice things on offense. He got two shots on net, ended up a +3 in Corsi, he seemed to work well with Peter Harrold (also limited in action at just 13:33 played), and he did a bit better after that turnover. Yet, he only played 12:39 and I could tell that he's still reluctant out there on defense. Chalk it up to his injury, inexperience, or whatever, but it wasn't a confidence-inducing performance. In a game where the fourth line got as many minutes as they did, it's telling to me that the coaches still leaned on the top four instead of giving more shifts to Harrold-Larsson. It remains to be seen whether they'll risk Larsson in the playoffs, but he didn't do enough in my eyes to show that he should be the #6 defenseman over Harrold at this point.
Poor Gonchar: Gonchar was the one in the five-on-one that led to the Devils scoring their second power play goal. That's an awful situation for him. He was awful when he didn't pick up the trailing Gionta for the game winner. As you can see in the picture, he's not even by Gionta and his stick isn't even on the ice. To paraphrase former ESPN basketball color commentator Marc Jackson: Stick up, messed up.
I'm Confident He Doesn't Do That Next Week: Martin Brodeur had a Martin Brodeur type game. He stopped what he could; he made some big bail-out saves; he caused some Senators to openly question what just happened; and he drew many cheers from the crowd. Of course, what will stick out was the goal scored by Matt Gilroy. In a way, I can't say I blame him. Gilroy fired a low shot from a sharp angle and Brodeur tried to kick it out in a flashy manner. He whiffed and it ended up in the net. Brodeur was too cute on the play and the team suffered. I'm sure the coaches weren't pleased, and they had every right to be. I'd say it was the biggest gaffe of the game except for the fact that Ottawa gave up a 5-on-1 on a penalty kill.
The good news is that Brodeur learned his lesson and safely stopped all other angled shots except for the backdoor play O'Brien scored on in the second period. If you want to fault someone for that, fault the skaters for leaving the right side wide open in a 5-on-5 situation.
One Final Thought: It was Fan Appreciation Day at the Rock. Prizes were awarded. Fans were thanked. The players even saluted the fans at center ice after the win; far more meaningful in this one instance than doing it every night. But as a fan, I have to thank the Devils. They proved the preseason critics wrong, they went earned 102 points with a 48-28-6 record and will go the playoffs after missing it last season. By almost every measure, they had a very successful regular season. There's no need to thank me, I'm just a fan who writes a ton of words about the Devils on a regular basis. Thank you, Devils, for getting the job done this season.
Now, it's time to take it to the next level against Florida.
What did you think of tonight's win? What do you make of the Devils performance? What did you like about what they've done? What would you have liked them to do differently? How did you react when you saw the 5-on-1 rush up ice? How did you react when Stephen Gionta scored the go-ahead goal in the third? Did you think he was the best player on the ice? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's win in the comments. Thanks to all those who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter, and thank you for reading.