The New Jersey Devils have pushed the Philadelphia Flyers to the brink of elimination at the Rock tonight. They won Game 4 by a score of 4-2, which was 3-2 until Dainius Zubrus iced the game with an empty net goal. The score may have been close, but the performance wasn't as the Devils just out-played the Flyers for the first two periods and held steady in the third. They swarmed the Flyers' end with great success and Ilya Bryzgalov was the only reason why this game wasn't a blowout. All this and a commanding 3-1 lead in their playoff series.
The empty net goal itself was a summation of how the night went for both teams. The puck was dumped in and collected easily by Martin Brodeur, who played it around to the left corner. Mark Fayne fires the puck hard around the sideboards into the neutral zone. The puck bounces away from Danny Briere and so Zubrus had an opportunity to take it in towards the empty net. As Zubrus is pumping his legs, Briere trips him up so clearly that the refs were ready to call it. Zubrus tumbles, the puck glides into the net (Note: if the puck didn't slide in the net, it would still count as a ENG because of the penalty), and the game was over. From the Flyers' perspective, it was a poor attempt at a zone entry, a bad bounce, a beaten Flyer, a foul, and ultimately failure for Philly. From the Devils' perspective, it was a good clearance that fortunately led to an offensive opportunity.
While I think that was the symbolic play of the game, a lot of praise for this result has to go to Peter DeBoer and the players themselves. The slogan "Swarm it up" may have came before the Florida series began and it's arguable that the Devils didn't always do that. Tonight, the sold out crowd at the Prudential Center got to see what that meant. The Devils' forecheck was simply sensational. They put two guys on the Flyers consistently and it worked to great effect. The Devils won seemingly thousands of pucks in the corners and along the walls. Zubrus won a lot of them, as did Adam Henrique, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and, most of all, Zach Parise. Everyone was seemingly flying out there from Parise and Kovalchuk to Stephen Gionta and, yes, Tim Sestito. The Devils were clearly superior in possession and in shots, going up 16-7 in the first period and then 16-5 in the second period. Yes, it was even more dominant in the second period - Peter Laviolette had no answer for DeBoer's gameplan. The Flyers only got on the board twice due to special teams; and even there, the Devils got one back - on the same power play Claude Giroux got a shorthanded goal on. The Devils had their gameplan, they had their 2-1-2 forecheck, everyone backchecked, and everyone looked to attack for 40 straight minutes. They swarmed the Flyers and eventually cameback from an early 0-2 deficit to lead 3-2. It could have easily been more, except Bryzgalov - the only Flyer to show up for the whole game - had other ideas and kept the game within reach for his team.
The third period was a bit of a setback. The Flyers, down one, had to attack more. They sort of did. They got ten shots on net, two shy of matching their first two periods combined. The Devils got eleven. New Jersey didn't win every battle or dump-in; and the pucks didn't always bounce their way as they seemingly did in the first two periods. Still, going even in shots against a deep team at forward like Philadelphia in a one-goal third period is quite good. The Devils weren't allowing too many easy looks for Philly and Martin Brodeur was more than up to the task late. They held on without selling out their entire offense; the sign of a superior team.
So the Devils are in a great spot to win this series. They just have to win one of their next three games. If there was pressure on the Flyers to win this game, they crumbled. They took bad calls. They got away with a lot of them, but not enough of them. They were muddled on offense. They were scrambling on defense. Who knows how they're going to react in Game 5. I'm expecting the worst - a revitalized and angry Flyers team. It's been said that the fourth win is the hardest; but the Devils put themselves in a great position to do it. If they can swarm it up again to the Flyers' frustration, then it could be sooner rather than later.
For an opposition's perspective on tonight's game, please read Travis Hughes' recap at Broad Street Hockey. For a few more thoughts on tonight'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
Lithuanian Freight Train: Dainius Zubrus was named the first star of the game by tonight's attending media, and he deserved it. Zubrus won an incredible amount of pucks along the boards. He racked up a +7 in Fenwick and +8 in Corsi. He saw a mix of Philly's players; all but four Flyers were on the ice with him at evens between three and five minutes. His wide-open one-timer on a feed from Henrique was lovely; and the goal stood up as the game winner. His push to get that loose puck within the game's final minute and drive towards the net sealed it off. In addition to those two shots, he had one other shot on net and a blocked shot. He also took a head shot from Claude Giroux late in the second period; and he still played in the third like it wasn't a problem. On a night where a lot of Devils did well, Zubrus was a stand-out player.
The First Period Goals - Starring Marek Zidlicky: Zidlicky was involved in all four goals in the first period.
Let's discuss the two against. His interference call gave the Flyers a power play not even a minute after the Devils' killed off an interference minor penalty on Travis Zajac. Scott Hartnell re-directed a Giroux shot to convert that power play. As the Devils began their first power play, the Flyers won the faceoff and the puck was pushed forward such that Maxime Talbot and Giroux were in a two-on-two. Talbot fed the puck past Zidlicky, who was beaten by Giroux. He didn't give much of an effort to deny Giroux, who scored as the puck took a bounce (off of Martin Brodeur's stick?) and dropped in over his sprawled out pad. Not good.
Zidlicky more than made up for those two with his work on the next two. As the power play (the one Giroux scored on) was doing very little; eventually, the Devils got set up. Zajac feathered a diagonal pass to Zidlicky at the point. The defenseman sees Petr Sykora breaking to the right post and hits him with a perfect pass. Sykora re-directs it past Bryzgalov to score. The finish was very good, but Zidlicky's pass was superb. The fourth goal, and the Devils' equalizer, came as a result of a pinch to the sideboards by Zidlicky. He didn't really win the puck; but it did bounce to Ilya Kovalchuk, who dropped back to cover for Zidlicky. Kovalchuk moved the puck to Bryce Salvador; and because Kovalchuk was back, Zidlicky cut to the slot. Salvador hits him with a great pass and Zidlicky re-directs it past Bryzgalov. Zidlicky was aggressive enough to cut in and he was rewarded with a goal. All this within the first twenty minutes of the game; Zidlicky really made his mark out there.
The subsequent periods were less dramatic. Zidlicky played a lot of minutes (18:33 at evens, 24:13 overall), and did quite well against the new line of Scott Hartnell, Briere, and Wayne Simmonds. Zidlicky finished the game at +8 Fenwick, +6 Corsi, four shots out of six attempts, and two points. I'm now very glad the Devils traded for him; though I would like him to be less involved in goals against. He can continue contributing to goals for.
The Headshot: Rule 48 for illegal contact to the head was actually called in tonight's game on Giroux for his headshot on Zubrus. The natural response to such a hit is: will Giroux be suspended for it? He did get penalized and that may be enough. But given that he got tagged with a rule specifically created for this type of hit, the hit was late, and given all of the other "messages" sent in this postseason, it may not be out of the question that the league takes another look and makes this last longer than two minutes in the box. Travis Hughes has a video of the hit itself at the larger SBNation site. Please view it for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Personally, I doubt he'll get suspended since the penalty was called. But who knows, given the inconsistency of discipline from the league.
Smarter Discipline Helps Wins Games: The Devils only took two penalties in this game. Yes, just two! The Flyers scored on the second one; but the Devils kept their cool and/or the refs swallowed their whistles late on anything questionable. This helped out the Devils greatly as it allowed them to keep the game at 5-on-5, where they were just crushing the Flyers. I hope the Devils can build on this from a penalty standpoint in future games.
On the flipside, the Flyers got hit with five minors and it could have been a lot worse if the refs decided to call more tripping and holding calls. Seriously, there was some blatant fouls out there. Yet, Steve Kozari and Kevin Pollak decided to let the players play. Even then, there was no disputing Andreas Lilja's trip, Hartnell's interference call (he didn't like it one bit, but whatever), Sean Couturier throwing the puck over the glass, Giroux's headshot, and Kimmo Timonen's hold on Henrique. They were clear calls and I have to give the refs credit for at least calling those. The Devils did a decent job on those power plays; though the first one had both disaster and glory involved. They got six shots on net and took more time off the clock for Philly.
Surprise of the Night: Zach Parise ended up tonight with no points. That's a surprise to me because he was an absolute monster on the ice tonight. He went in for pucks, he sometimes went through Flyers players for pucks, he won them, and immediately looked up for a pass for an offensive opportunity. Parise wasn't at all shy about shooting it himself as he had four shots on net out of seven attempts, the second most attempts on the team tonight. You'll have to go to Corsi and Fenwick to see that he was just dominant; +11 in both stats. Braydon Coburn had a long night just facing him at evens, much less trying to contain him. If he can continue playing like that in the future, then the points will come.
The Stoppers: While Zidlicky and Salvador got the production, Mark Fayne and Andy Greene got the stops. No disrespect intended to the former two and both Fayne and Greene combined for five shots, but when Fayne and Greene were on the ice, the puck often went towards the Flyers' end of the rink. Greene was a +14 in Corsi and Fayne was +13. Between the two, the only big mistake they had was when Fayne coughed up the puck right by the left post near the end of the second period. That led to Philadelphia's best chance to score; somehow, the puck ended up on a Devils stick after the fracas and it got out of the zone. Outside of that moment, they were as solid as a rock. It's no wonder why the coaches gave Greene and Fayne over 19 minutes at evens. They just denied Giroux over and over at evens.
A Weakness: Flyers fans can smile about their team at faceoffs. Giroux and Briere were fantastic; while the Devils collectively won 38% of all draws. Henrique wasn't so bad for his standards in this postseason at 9-for-20; but Patrik Elias was a miserable 3-for-14. Even Zajac didn't have such a good night by going 10-for-22. What did it ultimately mean? Not much. OK, maybe the Flyers' first goal; but that's it. The Devils still smacked the Flyers around in terms of shots and possession.
Numbers Proving the Devils Smacked the Flyers Around in Terms of Shots and Possession: The overall numbers in shots are clear: 43-22. Corsi was also clear: +24 for the Devils. Ditto in Fenwick: +22. Only two Devils were negative in Corsi: Stephen Gionta (-8) and Tim Sestito (-5). Both skated really hard tonight, and I appreciated their speed on the forecheck. But they got pinned back the Flyers a few times, including one that led to a marathon 98 second shift for Gionta in the second period.
Digging deeper, you can see who stood out further than others. Five of the Devils' top six were +9 or better in Corsi: Elias (+9), Zajac (+9), Alexei Ponikarovsky (+10), Kovalchuk (+10), and Parise (+11). The only outside man was David Clarkson (+3), who got switched with Steve Bernier (+4) for reasons I'm not still not clear on. Maybe Clarkson was dropped to shore up the fourth line? Maybe DeBoer just liked what Bernier was doing more? Either way, it didn't hurt. Outside of the top six, Henrique was a standout +14 in Corsi. I'm not surprised given that he straight up stripped pucks along the boards at times, and motored around on offense. He's really in a zone right now.
The shots came from just about everyone and everywhere. Only Sestito, Gionta, and Adam Larsson didn't register a shot on net; and Gionta was the only one not to make an attempt. Zajac led the Devils with five shots on net, Kovalchuk led in total attempts with eight, and four Devils had four shots on net: Zidlicky, Parise, Kovalchuk, and Elias. Yes, Kovalchuk and Elias were very much involved on offense; they looked quite good too. Five Devils got three shots on net: Zubrus (two goals), Sykora (one goal), Bernier (hmm), Fayne, and Henrique. With 43 shots on net, it's not unusual to see the offense spread around. The Devils did swarm it up across all four lines to some degree tonight. Still, it's noteworthy that so many different players are getting rubber on Bryzgalov. It was necessary too, since he had a strong game.
Giroux the Magician Says "Watch My Offense Disappear at Evens!": I don't believe Giroux has an even strength point yet in this series. Tonight, he did set up the first goal on a power play and scored a shorty. Normally, that's a good night for anyone. Two points is always good, right? Yet, that goal was Giroux's only shot on net of the entire game. He got destroyed in possession, a team-worst -16 in Corsi, meaning the offensive forward was forced to defend a lot. So much for the new lines by Philly (Giroux What's more is that he didn't get matched with Elias all night long; he saw the Zajac line a lot more. If Flyers fans want to know what's going wrong with their team, then they need to look at their leading scorer and ask, "Why are you only making things happen on special teams?" Then they should ask other forwards about their commitment on defense and in the neutral zone. I'd start with James van Reimsdyk, since he was just lazily stretching his stick out as Zidlicky went into the slot for a score.
Flyers Defensive Woes: Kimmo Timonen getting cut off by Henrique for Zubrus' eventual game-winner made him look bad. So did his -11 in Corsi. He's really fallen off from the team's #1 defenseman in the regular season. Yet, two other defensemen were worse. Braydon Coburn was a -15 in Corsi and just got picked on all night long by the Zajac line. Nicklas Grossman was similarly pinned back at -14 Corsi; though he wasn't on the ice for a goal. The Flyers' defensemen just had little answer for the Devils' forecheck or most of their dump-ins. No one really stood up at the blueline to deny the Devils, and no one was really good at preventing the Devils from doing as they wished for most of the game. If only Chris Pronger was around, he'd fix this right up. But he's not coming out anytime soon.
Humongous Big: Ilya Bryzgalov really can't be faulted for any of the three goals allowed. The first two were one-timers away from him; and the third was a one-timer from a wide-open Zubrus in front. Bryzgalov was denying the Devils left and right, coming up with big saves in the game's first forty minutes. It seemed like he was trying to drag the Flyers into the third with a tied game. Even with the Zubrus goal, Bryzgalov made the game possible despite the Devils out-working, out-skating, and out-playing the Philadelphia skaters. There's been a lot of heat on him for giving up soft goals; but I really can't name another Flyer who has been as consistently effective as Bryzgalov.
Happy Birthday: Martin Brodeur turned 40 on May 6. I don't know what other gifts he got, but he got an assist, a relatively easy night in net, and a playoff win tonight. Brodeur did have to face a bit of beef with the Flyers crashing (or in van Reimsdyk's case, falling) into him; but it wasn't too bad. Brodeur faced only 22 shots on net and he made good stops on the twenty he did stop. He can't be faulted for the first goal; and I'm on the fence on the second one. I want to chalk Giroux's shorthanded goal to a bad bounce since that's what it appeared. Yet, I'm not sure why Brodeur sprawled out the way he did? Whatever the case may be, Brodeur didn't have to bail out the Devils too many times and he handled the puck well elsewhere. A good game by Brodeur as part of a great performance by the Devils: that's usually enough to get the desired result.
Updated Section - This Made Me Giggle: Peter Laviolette burned his timeout within the first five minutes of the first period. I don't believe there was an icing call or anything to try to get his guys a rest. He just wanted to tell his skaters that they needed to get their acts together after being outworked early on. The Devils continued to out-work them heavily through the rest of the period, the second period, and parts of the third. Also: Laviolette had two days to figure out what the Devils were doing and get his players on board with his gameplan. So much for the Master of the Timeout.
One Final Thought: I don't know about Matt E. or Kevin, but I'm prepared to eat a lot of crow. Let's hope it's on Tuesday night. But remember: the Devils didn't win anything yet. Let's celebrate this win; but they didn't win this series yet. 3-1 is a great spot to be in, but it's not over. If they can keep swarming the Flyers and keep working them over, then I don't see why they can't win just one of the next three games. But let's wait until it actually happens.
Now that you know my thoughts, I want to know yours and as usual, here are some questions to facilitate discussion. Who was the best Devil on the ice tonight? Who on the Devils did you think had a good game that I didn't mention or should have focused on more in this recap? Can you believe that the Devils played the way they did tonight? I'm still amazed by the effort. What's up with the Flyers? Can the Devils keep swarming them? What did you think the of refs tonight? Who lost their coverage on Zubrus for his game winner? How do you feel about the Devils now going forward in this series? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and to those who followed my occassional tweets with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.