Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ilya Providing a Belated Return on Investment | NJD 1 NYR 0

There are those games where you marvel at a player's skill and remember how beautiful ice hockey can be, even if the team you root for loses.

Last night at the Prudential Center, the surging New Jersey Devils (now 14-1-2 since January 8) rode Ilya Kovalchuk's talent and leadership to a 1-0 victory as Johan Hedberg bested Henrik Lundqvist. The official recap is here.

I have not been a fan of Ilya Kovalchuk. I did not get behind the idea of him joining the Rangers. And I am still glad he is not on the team. Still, I give him his credit -- he is not dirty or self-reverential like the twin-headed Bettman butt-buddies named Malkin and Crosby.

Under the proper tutelage, his talent has fully revealed itself. Next time, someone tells you coaches are not important to a team's chemistry -- compare the Devils under John McLean and under Jacques Lemaire.

The game started off at a frenetic pace -- play continued from the opening puck drop for nearly 6 minutes. The crowd was chanting Let's Go Devils and Let's Go Rangers. Blue Ranger sweaters were a strong presence in stands. The buzz and cheering reminded me of watching some tapes of the infamous 1994 conference final series. Too bad it is not like this every night at The Rock.

The Devils are a changed team since Jacque Lemaire took over. Their discipline in the defensive zone is admirable but they now focus more on offense, thanks to the presence of Kovalchuk, than his previous boring trap teams. (If this team, which I picked in the preseason to be 4th in the conference, had Zach Parise playing, they would be quite scary.)

If you want a full understanding of how the Devils set-up works, you should read my colleague's analysis over at Hockey Rodent. He can explain this in much better detail than I could ever hope to.

Zuccarello's shootout mastery is not translating into goals
during regulation play. This missed first period opportunity was a killer.

After an initial flurry during the opening minutes which included a couple of missed golden opportunities (including 3 attempts by Mats Zuccarello), the Rangers were a step behind the Devils until the 3rd period.

Unfortunately, the missed chances were costly because for the 7th game in a row, the Rangers surrendered the opening goal and against a defensive monolith like the Devils, that goal stood up.

Besides the fact that the Rangers looked tired after the previous night's win against L.A., Marc Stall picked the worst night to have perhaps the worst game of his career. He was guilty of making several ill-conceived passes in his own zone. His failure to stop a puck at the blue line led to Kovalchuk's racing up ice, picking up the loose puck and sailing in on Henrik to beat him for the only goal of the game with 11:42 remaining in the second period. The suddenness of the score deflated the Rangers. He tried to help on the offense but I saw him out of position or simply uninvolved too often that made me think he was simply exhausted.

Later in the 2nd period, Kovalchuk proved why he is quite an offensive talent as he glided around the right faceoff circle, eluded 2 Rangers and calmly blasted a shot that beat Lundqvist over his left shoulder -- fortunately, the goal post stopped the puck, otherwise we would be watching that highlight goal for the next year or two.

Sandwiched. Kovalchuk was launched into the bench but
jumped back out smiling. An indication of someone enjoying the game.

Of course, the Rangers surged in the 3rd period but Callahan was stoned by Hedberg early on. The Rangers buzzed around the Devils' zone but as they often do, they failed to put the puck on net. They hesitated to take shots from the point enabling the Devils to get in position to block pucks. The Rangers only had 4-5 scoring chances all night long.

During a power play opportunity midway throught the 3rd period, the Rangers passed the puck smartly around the zone but could not convert their passing into any shots. Even though the Rangers applied plenty of pressure during the period, they still only had 6 shots (and only 16 for the game).

It was a shame the Rangers did not play with this intensity earlier in the game. It is apparent that the Rangers' inability to score the first goal of a game is putting them at a severe disadvantage, game after game.

Meanwhile, the Devils had no fear about taking shots from all angles as soon as they presented themselves. Several last moment desperate clears by Ranger defensemen kept the Devils from scoring more.

The Devils, once trailing the Rangers by 31 points in the standing, now trail by 14. They are within hailing distance of 8th place but their surge has started too late. However, they are certainly showing signs of what this team will look like next year, when they could be quite scary.

The standings got tighter again -- Carolina beat the Flyers in Raleigh. I still think Carolina has the best chance of beating the Flyers in an opening round series. The Rangers face the slumping Flyers on Sunday afternoon and then visit Raleigh on Tuesday night. Then a trip to D.C. for the Caps next Friday night. This is one hard stretch coming up.

---The Graying Mantis

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