Back in October, before the Devils lost Zach Parise, their first stop on their California road trip was in San Jose. There, Joe Thornton led the Sharks to a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils. The top line of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley personally delivered that embarrassing note of defeat. Thornton’s game winner and hat trick led his club to the victory, leaving the Devils sharkbitten.
This, of course, was during the first half of the season. It was just another example of why the Devils had won only 10 games out of the first 41 contests.
Since that halfway mark, and a new coach to lead the way, the Devils have lost only three games, but still gained a point in two of those overtime losses. Coming into the second match-up against the Sharks, the Devils had posted 11 wins in their last 14 games.
What would define if the Devils had a chance at the playoffs lay in the result of their second round against the Sharks.
Throughout the first two periods, the Devils played a very defensive game, rather than dominating the puck. That was evidenced following each of the first two periods when the Sharks led the shots on goal, 12-2 in the first and 12-9 in the second.
The offense didn’t start to generate until the final period. Patrick Marleau started the scoring after 46:08 of play. After that goal, it was tough to say if the Devils would be able to take another two points in their quest for a playoff spot.
But luck was on their side as the universe afforded them not one, but a two-man advantage after Thornton (8:02) and Logan Couture (8:45) went to the penalty box. Brian Rolston got the Devils on the scoreboard at 9:12 with the Devils’ first power play goal since their game against the Panthers back on January 23rd. The Devils were 0-for-12 on the power play in the last five contests.
“There’s not many things, when you play hockey for a living, that feel better than that,” Rolston said of his power play goal. “It’s a great crowd and you turn around and see the crowd go up, it’s an exciting thing. Especially through the ups and downs I’ve had this season.”
This past month has been great for Rolston, who spent the month prior to that on and off waivers. He wasn’t picked up by any teams and was able to rejoin the club, where he has played his best hockey yet in recent years.
At 16:01, coming right off the faceoff, Kovalchuk gathered the puck and sent it flying towards Anttii Niemi’s net to tally the game winner.
“When it’s a night he doesn’t look great, he’s still a dangerous guy,” said Patrik Elias about Kovalchuk. “He’s got to shoot as much as possible. He’s got a great shot. You feel like you’re riding that wave, but a lot of times the puck’s got to find its way and that’s good for us.”
The objective afterwards was to maintain that lead. As luck was suddenly on their side, they got another break when Torrey Mitchell’s high-sticking on Dainius Zubrus resulted in a double-minor at 17:41. Zubrus received a cut under his right eye, which was a result of the stick going up under his face shield.
With Niemi pulled for an extra man on the ice for the Sharks, they were not able to come back as the Devils controlled the puck while the seconds dwindled down.
Elias had an opportunity at the empty net to make it 3-1, but the buzzer went off half a second before the puck crossed the goal line, ending the game 2-1 in favor of the Devils.
“I needed half a second longer in the third period,” Elias said. “That was a curveball…a triple-hopper.”
This was a big win for the Devils. They were able to defeat the team that was a scary team to defeat earlier in the season.
“That’s huge,” Rolston said of the win. “That shows character. That shows [when] we’re down to a good hockey team and we still feel…we still have a fight in us to come back and win the hockey game. That is the most rewarding…when you can win like that.”
Now, they are proving that Jacques Lemaire’s Devils are back to true form. Not perfect, but still winners.
“We feel good about the way we’re playing,” Rolston said. “Everybody’s contributing. Everybody feels part of the team.”
This marked Lemaire’s 601st win. His 600th win came the night before against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is now 601-452-186 in his career. He becomes one of eight individuals that have accomplished this feat: Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Sr., Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan, Bryan Murray and Ron Wilson.
Do the Devils truly have a chance at the playoffs? Kovalchuk said to check back with him on March 1st, and then he’ll tell you.