On New Year’s Eve, Brian Rolston was waived and recalled to the Devils’ roster for the second time, after clearing re-entry waivers. It was the belief of some, including yours truly that the Isles (then the worst team in the league other than us) would take a flier on him since they were perilously close to the salary floor. They did not, and perhaps had cause to regret that this afternoon in Long Island as Rolston continued his strong play recently, scoring the first and last goals of the game…the first coming on a power play in the second period and the last coming in the sixth round of the shooout to win yet another nail-biter for the Devils, pulling them to within seven – yes seven! – points of the final playoff spot with seventeen games left. Not to mention the win leaves the Devils just one game short of NHL .500, something that seemed preposterous when they were nineteen under at the halfway point.
Really though, this game was indiciative of an entire organization’s redemption in the second half. For it was against these Isles that coach Jacques Lemaire made his return to the bench against in a dreary 5-1 loss two days before Christmas, after which the stunned coach indicated the Devils looked like they had ‘lost their ability to play the game’. If anyone had suggested back then these Devils were capable of a 20-2-2 run, they would have been viewed very curiously to say the least. Not to mention star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk was mired in a nightmare first half, which included a humiliating shootout miss against the Sabres in November. Today however, Kovy continued his recent clutch scoring with another big third period goal and scored a confident shootout goal as well.
At one point, the Devils were behind the Isles by a whopping ten points – for twenty-ninth place in the NHL. Now these cardiac kids sit just seven points back of Carolina for a playoff berth that is amazingly becoming more plausible by the day. A team once derided for lack of heart after an uninspiring second half last year and a disasterous first half this year is now winning one-goal games left, right and sideways. Since the beginning of February, the Devils have played sixteen games, with no fewer than fourteen of them being decided by one goal or the shootout. Not only have the games been insanely close, but the Devils have continued to win at an astonishing rate, going 14-1-1 during that stretch (with a 12-1-1 record in those one-goal games).
Early on it looked as if this game would go according to the recent script, as the Devils once again held the opposition scoreless in the first period, setting a modern NHL record (post-’44/45 season) with thirteen consecutive games of throwing up a zero in the first period. At 4:09 of the second period, the Devils jumped out in front when Rolston scored his usual way, a slapper that found the net on a power play, giving the Devils power play goals on two straight man advantages…shocking, isn’t it? Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac got the assists on Rolston’s 12th goal of the year, but the Devils would give up the lead on their own penalty kill later on when Josh Bailey pounced on a timely rebound in front for his 10th goal at 17:06.
Even with the Isles tying the game, I remarked to my friend at a Devils viewing party that it’s setting up the way it has for the last several games, tied in the third period with more Kovy heroics to come. Sure enough, it was Kovy who beat Al Montoya at 2:52 with a heavy wristshot, to give the emotional winger his 24th of the year and yet another tie-breaking goal in the third period. Also on Kovy’s goal, rookie Jacob Josefson got his first NHL point with an assist (defenseman Anton Volchenkov got and assist as well). You almost got the feeling too much time was still left though, especially with a gritty Isles team chomping at our heels. Sure enough, Blake Comeau scored his eighteenth goal of the year at 16:18 when Mark Fayne‘s stick broke on a clearing attempt, leaving Comeau with the puck in prime scoring position.
After a share of near-misses in the third period and overtime by both teams came the shootout, the Devils’ first in what seemed like forever (since November 28, to be exact – a win over the Flyers by Johan Hedberg). It was also Montoya’s first shootout in the NHL while Martin Brodeur was in his 53rd, though it was actually Brodeur’s first since last April. When Isles shootout ace Frans Nielsen opened the scoring, Lemaire’s opening choice was interesting, starting with rookie Mattais Tedenby who got denied by Montoya. Brodeur would hold serve though, stopping P.A.Parenteau before Kovy – he of the 25% career record in shootouts – scored a confident goal on a hard wrister up top.
From then on each shot was tense as Montoya stopped Patrik Elias, Josefson and Zajac while Brodeur denied Matt Moulson, John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin. Finally, Lemaire played a hunch and sent out Rolston, who according to the coach ‘sold himself’ by standing on the bench and looking over repeatedly. Rolston (who had a poor record in the shootout himself) responded with one of the best shootout attempts of his career, faking a slapshot then deking in close to beat Montoya with a backhand that sealed yet another wild Devils win.
Although the Devils are getting absolutely no help from the out-of-town scoreboard so far (with Buffalo leading Minnesota 2-0 and the Rangers destroying a flu-ridden and disinterested Flyers team at the Garden earlier this afternoon), getting even closer to the last seed – though it could be eight points back if the Sabres hold on to win – can only increase momentum that’s already going through the roof after this team’s defied death every which way over the last two months. Not to mention at home on Tuesday against a last-place Ottawa team, the Devils have a chance to get back to .500 – with sixteen games left in the season after that. Simply preposterous.