PHILADELPHIA – Keep skating. Keep shooting. That's what the New Jersey Devils told themselves Tuesday night.
They didn't have leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. They faced a one-game deficit in their second-round playoff series and a one-goal deficit in Game 2. Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov – who had shut them out twice in the regular season – was making save after save after save.
But the Devils were dominating. All they had to do was find a crack, and then they could rip it open. "We had a good feeling that if we were going to get one," said Devils captain Zach Parise, "we were going to get a couple."
The Devils got four in the third period, beating the Flyers, 4-1, and tying the series, 1-1. The last goal summed up the game. Even an empty-netter wasn't easy. Defenseman Bryce Salvador, who so rarely gets to score, took a stick in the face as he fired the puck out of the New Jersey zone. As he fell to his knees, the puck skidded and bounced and hopped along the choppy ice and slowly crossed the line.
"We could have just sat back and said, 'You know what? It's not going to go in,' " said Devils winger David Clarkson, who scored the winner. "But we didn't give up. We kept pushing."
So what's the feeling now? Now that the Devils have gotten one victory, are they going to get a couple?
Could they get four?
Few so-called experts gave the Devils a chance in this series, myself included. I still don't think they're going to win it. They had to go to double-overtime of Game 7 to beat the Florida Panthers in the first round, and the Panthers were a team with a minus-24 goal differential in the regular season, by far the worst among the 16 playoff teams. The Flyers took six games to upset the Pittsburgh Penguins, the popular pick to win the Stanley Cup. My pick to win the Stanley Cup.
But these playoffs keep proving the so-called experts wrong, myself included, and a game like this gives you pause. The Devils finished only one point behind the Flyers in the regular season. They did it even though center Travis Zajac missed all but 15 games. Even if they don't have Kovalchuk – officially day-to-day with a lower-body injury, reportedly suffering from a back problem – they are capable of winning this series if they skate and work and the Flyers don't.
"I think it is all about desperation," said Flyers center Danny Briere. "They were first on the puck, and they wanted it more. The parity these days in the league is that there is not a big difference between teams. When a team wants it more, they get rewarded."
Funny thing was, the Flyers struck first. Rookie Matt Read gave them a 1-0 lead just 2:53 into the game. Briere hit a goal post shortly afterward. Had that puck gone in, the Flyers would have taken a 2-0 lead. Had they taken a 2-0 lead, they might have taken a 2-0 series lead. Had they taken a 2-0 series lead, this might have been effectively over.
History means only so much. But the Flyers are 18-0 in series when they win the first two games. They are 17-15 when they split them. "I think we know the hole we're in if we lose tonight," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer. "I think our backs are against the wall obviously with [Kovalchuk] out. I'm not surprised we responded the way we did."
Keep skating. Keep shooting. The Devils started carrying the play later in the first period, and they absolutely owned the second. They outshot the Flyers through the first 18 minutes, 12-0. Twelve to zero. The Flyers looked out of sync – Claude Giroux, Jaromir Jagr, almost everybody. If not for Bryzgalov, it would have been 4-1 long before the third. "He is the only one who showed up," Briere said.
Then came the crack. Devils defenseman Adam Larsson, a rookie in his first NHL playoff game, beat Bryzgalov with a wrist shot 3:08 into the third.
And then the Devils ripped it open. They lost a faceoff in the Philadelphia end, but they won the battle for the puck – as they had all night. Bryzgalov poke-checked Parise, but the puck squirted to the goalie’s left. Clarkson tapped it in as he crashed the net with 8:43 to go. He ended up on top of the cage … and stayed there for a second or two to celebrate. Goaltender Martin Brodeur joked he held the pose for pictures.
"Picking up the garbage," chided rookie winger Adam Henrique in the dressing room later.
"I'll take it," Clarkson said.
Zajac made it 3-1 with 5:59 to go, wrapping around and stuffing the puck into a gaping net before Bryzgalov could recover.
"They were quicker," said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. "They were more competitive on the puck than we were. There are times when a goaltender stands on his head like that and you're able to squeak one out, but oftentimes it doesn't last or it doesn't hold up. In the end, the results are just based on your play."
In the end, the Devils outshot the Flyers, 34-20. But it was even worse than that. They took 23 shots that were blocked, too. They killed five Philly power plays. The Flyers went without a power-play goal for the first time in these playoffs. Keep skating. Keep shooting. Do that, and the Devils have a chance.
For the Flyers, it's a little different, but just as simple. Start skating. Start shooting.
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