If you didn't watch the first 10 minutes of today's game, you'd think it was one of the Devils' best efforts all season. Despite that (very) sub-par start, the Devils once again managed to "turn it on" after Pete DeBoer's timeout and just dominated the Panthers for the next 50 minutes. Some thoughts...
Wake-up call: The Pete DeBoer First Period Timeout should be sold in pharmacies across the country. It's best wake-up call I think I've ever seen. Why the Devils continue to need it -- especially in the throes of a desperate playoff chase -- is beyond me, but it certainly is the magical elixir this roster covets. The Devils came out painfully slow and were lacking any sort of energy. The Panthers were skating circles around them, getting to every loose puck. Both of Florida's goals were a result of out-efforting New Jersey, but that changed as soon as DeBoer called his infamous timeout. You could see him rotating his hand, signaling the Devils needed to pick up the energy. This wasn't one of those "settle down" timeouts. This was the "well-time expletive" version and it worked. Boy did it work. It took a few minutes but before long New Jersey was all over Florida, like a train that takes time to build up speed and then all of sudden is barreling down the tracks at 80 miles per hour. I know I've spent some time cracking on the Devils for their slow starts this season and their reliance on the P.D.F.P.T. (we might need a better acronym), but at this point, a win is a win is a win.
Rewarding: Before David Clarkson even scored his goal, I thought he was playing his best game in weeks, maybe a month-plus. He was hitting everything that moved, strong below the Panthers' goal line and playing tough along the boards. His goal seemed more of a reward than anything else, a reward for a really, really good day's work. What was impressive is that even after that goal he didn't slow down. He continued to throw his body around and play with size and skill in the offensive zone and it nearly landed him a second score. We haven't seen Clarkson play this way in the offensive end from start to finish of a game in, well, a really long time. Clarkson's play was a huge part of why the line of he, Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias were clearly the best line on the ice for either team for the entire game. In fact, right before Clarkson scored, I wrote the line "This line is jumping" about the Devils' new second line. It was a huge part of today's win and if Clarkson plays like this tomorrow, he'll energize Zajac and Elias again. And if that happens, they'll drive the Rangers crazy.
The prodigal Russian: Ilya Kovalchuk is back! Ilya Kovalchuk is back! And the Devils scored six times and he didn't even register an assist! Did Kovy look vintage? No. He's clearly rusty and probably still needs to do a little work on his conditioning, but he did uncork a couple vintage one-timers. He also reported no pain after the game, which is huge because I also saw him throw his body around a couple times. I think the most important thing with Kovy is that he has this unspoken impact on the team's psyche just by being in the lineup and in the locker room. Much like when Martin Brodeur, you saw the team with an added boost of confidence that wasn't necessarily there during the 10-game slide. Also, Kovy back in the lineup means the Devils don't have to rely on Clarkson as a first-line right wing, which pushes Matt D'Agostini or Steve Sullivan down to the third line and keeps Steve Bernier on the fourth line. It wassn;t a coincidence that Clarkson had his best game in weeks while finally playing in position again. Kovy makes the Devils deeper, more confident and more skilled. I just hope he's not compromising his long-term health -- but that's another discussion (or crow-eating session) for another day.
Across the river: The Rangers were off today, but that doesn't mean they were far from the mind of Devils fans. Their win over the Sabres on Friday night means the Devils are still six points out of eight place despite two straight wins. The best way to change that? Win tomorrow -- or else. If the Devils lose tomorrow either in regulation or overtime, that'll officially do it for them. They'll be eight points out with three games left and mathematically eliminated. So all they can do is show up at MSG and play the entire 60 minutes like they did the final 50 today. The good news is they've played well two games in a row, just got their best player back in the lineup and have tons more confidence than they did only three days ago. The Rangers are 7-2-1 in their last 10 but have done it with a lot of deflections, tips and random three- or four-goal binges during periods. The Devils will need to come out and establish their forecheck early and set the tone. Oh, and watch out for that Nash guy, who has five points in his last two games.
Notes: DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ADAM LARSSON PLAYS ON THE POWER PLAY? I'm just saying. ... I know I said it above, but what a game by that Elias-Zajac-Clarkson line. Elias scored twice, Clarkson with as complete a game as possible and Zajac played really well in all three zones. Where has this line been all season? ... The Panthers are really bad. I mean they have skill and some size, but they are awful along the boards and make terrible decisions. Plus, Jacob Markstrom -- ehhhhh. But in his defense, I'm pretty sure I could set up shop in that crease and not get moved. ... Really nifty (yeah, I said nifty) move by Clarkson on Elias' second goal to feign a shot long enough to draw the defensemen and Markstrom to him and then give himself enough room to pass across the slot to Elias. That's savvy, right there. ... The Devils scores six times and I can count at least two or three times they should've had another goal, particularly on that Clarkson-Zajac give-and-go in the third and when Elias just missed the hatter in the second. ... Another excellent game by the CBGB line, who are just so much fun to watch, particularly Stephen Gionta. ... Speaking of Gionta, he certainly got "tossed out" of the Panthers' bench, eh? Yeah, they could've been nicer hosts but you'd be ornery too if you gave up 12 goals in the last two games. ... Chico Resch pointed it out on the MSG telecast, but really excellent positional play by Brodeur on that penalty shot to start the third period. Who knows what happens if the Panthers score there and make it 5-3. You know what they say about a two-goal lead. ... Most impressive thing about today's win? The Devils didn't take their foot off the gas ONCE after they got going in the first period. They finished each and every play. That's an incredibly rare sight this year.