Even though last night was Star Wars night at the Rock, I refuse to follow in lockstep and make the headline some play on that. Granted I’m one of the few people that’s not a Star Wars fan myself though I had to laugh when the clip of How I Met Your Mother came on the screen at one point with Marshall screaming at Ted about how the only people who haven’t seen Star Wars movies were the ones who acted in them. And while they certainly did a nice job with the videos and 3D stuff on the ice before, during and after the game (including a sneaky good credits sequence post-game that even I mostly missed cause me and my friends left after the postgame interview with star of the game Kyle Palmeri), last night’s game itself outshone the promo and was certainly memorable in its own right.
Once again this Devils team lived up to it’s Relentless tag (thanks to Derek, I almost typed resilient, though that’d apply too) in a 3-2 OT win over a Detroit team that – as usual – has been one of the league’s best so far this year. Although the Devils had a standard of success for a long time, Detroit’s certainly the model franchise in the NHL today. They don’t need top picks to rebuild, they just scout and find guys no matter where they draft. Because of that, the Wings’ simple but recognizable uniform and because of 1995, there’s still a little mystique for me when Detroit comes to the Rock. It also adds to the anticipation level that they rarely came to the CAA/Rock for years when they were a West team until the last few seasons and even now their visits are limited to 1-2 a season.
In fact one of the Devils’ few signature wins in the last handful of seasons came against Detroit two years ago when Stephen Gionta scored the game-winner with just over thirty seconds left in a 4-3 win that some thought could have been Martin Brodeur’s last game as a Devil if he was moved at the deadline, which of course didn’t happen. Due to circumstances beyond my control I couldn’t attend that particular game. Little did I know last night would give me another chance to be at a game, and an ending like that against Detroit. Certainly going into the game there wasn’t much reason for optomism given the level the Wings have been playing at combined with the absence of the Devils’ two top centers with Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique both missing last night’s game after Henrique got hurt on Tuesday in Toronto. Living up to their franchise coda the Devils have been notoriously secretive on even a timeline for a return much less the actual injuries for both.
One thing that couldn’t be denied, with both centers being out it created an opportunity for guys like Joe Blandisi, a former sixth-round pick of the Avs and UFA signing last winter who played in his first NHL game last night – and unbeknownst to the 21-year old his teammates let him skate the first lap of warmups solo before joining him. Unlike rookies in the previous few seasons, Blandisi wasn’t completely a forgotten man once the game started getting 14:37 of icetime and even a couple minutes of power play time, putting up three shots and having good/bad moments like any rookie would. As it turned out though the real beneficiary of the opportunities provided by Henrique and Zajac’s absence was Sergey Kalinin, who’s had an up and down season, at times struggling not only to make an impact but to gain the coaches’ acceptance. Last night may have been his best game as a Devil though, scoring a key goal in the third period and playing the physical, impage game the staff’s been looking for from the KHL import. For an added bonus Kalinin was one of the few Devils to be >50% in the faceoff circle though the Devils predictably struggled in the dot – and on the PK for that matter – without Zajac.
In fact the only two games the Devils have given up more than one power play goal this season are games Zajac hasn’t played over the last couple weeks as he continues to deal with a mystery injury that landed him on IR a couple days ago (though technically he’s eligible to come off tomorrow most expect his absence to be longer than fellow pivot Henrique’s). Last night was one of those games as the Devils gave up two power play goals in the second period alone, the first within seconds of the initial faceoff being lost on a deflection by Gustav Nyquist at 8:51, the second on a pretty move by Tomas Tatar just inside the blueline near the end of another power play at 16:08 of the middle period. Even with Detroit playing its fourth game in six nights and the Devils playing well, I did not see a comeback coming last night. I remarked bitterly more than once if they’d given this kind of effort against Toronto at the start of the game on Tuesday they lost in a shootout at the AAC, they would have won easily. Or at least not been outshot 20-8 early in the game, whatever it was and that was before Henrique got hurt. Clearly the Devils continued their habit of playing up and down to their competition this week.
Even playing up to the competition doesn’t exactly guarantee a win of course, and two goals down in the third against a resurgent Jimmy Howard in the Detroit net looked like a tall order. Sometimes all it takes is one bomb to change the game though, in this case Damon Severson’s rocket found its way past Howard at 2:40 of the third period, cutting the deficit in half and giving Severson (somewhat surprisingly) his first goal of the season. With the staff keeping Eric Gelinas on a leash for the time being, they need a rocket like Severson’s to create some offense from the blueline, although John Moore did his best MoORR impression late in the first period – or as a Detroit commentator with a long memory said it was more Niedermayeresque circa Game 2 in 1995 – nearly going coast to coast and firing a shot that just about beat Howard…but glanced off the knob of the goaltender’s stick denying Moore a highlight reel goal.
There would be no denying the Devils on a power play later in the third period though, when Kalinin’s well-timed tip beat Howard at 14:40 gave the Devils a tying goal the fans would have to celebrate on three different occasions. Why three? After the goal the officials checked the play presumably to see if there was a high stick which worried me a little bit too but allowed the goal, then Detroit challenged the play claiming interference on the basis of Kalinin’s stick ostensibly glancing off Howard’s stick. For several minutes – hours it seemed! – the refs looked over the play, finally upholding the call on the ice. I have no problem with getting obvious mistakes right but that challenge looked like Detroit just trying to get away with a technicality, or getting a long timeout for a tired team.
Still more dramatic moments were in store, with Howard and Cory Schneider both making brilliant saves to get their teams in OT and keep the game going in OT, including one tantalizingly close play in front of the net when Schneider had to stretch out to prevent the ever-dangerous Pavel Datsyuk from winning it during the 3-on-3. Finally, a great combination would end the game with just forty seconds left before the dreaded skills competition when Lee Stempniak literaly alley-ooped a puck to Kyle Palmeri and hit him in stride on a play that looked like something out of the second Mighty Ducks movie. Palmeri got a step on Tatar and beat Howard off an attempted pokecheck on the breakaway, once again doing a hero turn with his thirteenth goal of the season. In fact in a stunning but humorous note, Palmeri’s goal and point totals are both higher than anyone on his former team (the Ducks) right now. More importantly it was a big team win considering the opponent and circumstance.