Devils erupt sans Kovalchuk, pull even with Flyers in East semifinals
The game was destined to be about the Ilyas -- that is, the Devils' Kovalchuk and the Flyers' Bryzgalov.
Kovalchuk, who did not travel with the Devils to Philadelphia on Tuesday, was scratched from the game, suffering from a lower-body injury, reportedly a back ailment. And Bryzgalov, who had backed the Flyers to five wins despite pedestrian numbers, is a nightly question mark -- and that's not just in his postgame interviews. But despite Bryzgalov shining through two periods, it was Kovalchuk's absence that ultimately spurred the Devils, who won 4-1 in Game 2.
"[Kovalchuk] is a huge part of our team," Devils captain Zach Parise said. "And internally, we knew that everyone's got to be a little bit better when you don't have him in the lineup. And tonight, we responded well."
Even without the productive winger -- Kovalchuk led New Jersey in shots and goals this season -- the Devils offense didn't stutter, as some would have expected. They fired shots on Bryzgalov like they were taking target practice on the Flyers crest on his sweater; that is, that's where most of them hit, especially early on.
In a dashing second period, the goalie that everyone loves to quote took everyone's breath away. And when the 20,131 fans at the Wells Fargo Center finally caught their breath, they began to chant: "Bryz-ga-lov! Bryz-ga-lov!" In a city that has historically run hot and cold with their goalies -- usually colder than hot -- his 12-save performance in the middle frame had kept the Flyers alive.
"Without Bryz there, things could've gotten really dangerous out there," said Flyers forward Matt Read. "He kept it close and gave us a chance to win [in the third]. If he plays like that on any given night, it does give us a better opportunity to win."
After hopping onto a 1-0 lead early in the game, when Read baited Devils goalie Martin Brodeur out of the net, then hooked a shot in at 2:53, the Flyers offered little help to their goalie; their offense stagnated. They put up nine shots in the first period -- seven in the first 10 minutes -- and then it took them 18 minutes and 32 seconds into the second to finally get the puck on New Jersey's net, a Claude Giroux slapshot from nearly 70 feet out. A Devils player admitted he kept looking up at the shot clock throughout the period, hoping time might expire and the Flyers' shot total would remain at nine.
"You could tell they were looking up too," he said. "They just wanted to throw anything on net."
By the end of the second, New Jersey had outshot the idle Flyers 25-11. Despite generating so many shots through 40 minutes, the Devils couldn't find a way past Bryzgalov, which the Devils admit could easily have turned into complete frustration.
"[But] it starts with a guy like Zach," Devils winger David Clarkson said. "We didn't give up, we kept battling, and when we came in the room between periods, we said to each other, 'Let's keep going. Let's keep working.'"
As has often been the case with this New Jersey team, the persistence finally paid off -- and in the player who was inserted into the lineup in lieu of Kovalchuk.
With the teams playing four-on-four early in the third, Devils defenseman Adam Larsson, a 19-year-old rookie who was a healthy scratch throughout the first round, took a pass from forward Dainius Zubrus, who had won a battle for a rebound. Larsson skated in on Bryzgalov and then snapped a shot high on the goalie's short side from the right dot, equalizing a game that had grown lopsided in a way the scoreboard did not reflect.
Eight minutes later, New Jersey's Clarkson knocked in the winner, punching in the puck from close range after Bryzgalov had poke-checked it away from Parise. Travis Zajac and Bryce Salvador added insurance -- the latter on an empty net -- sealing a Devils win that evened the series at 1-1.
It only seemed fair that the goals would pour in for New Jersey, which finished the game with 35 shots. They took advantage of a Flyers team that seemed stale, uninspired through most of the game, and in all three zones. They won one-on-one battles with seeming ease. Their puck support was ample and communication sharp, and their ability to rush the Flyers into bad decisions or keep them pinned in their zone for shifts clearly gave the Devils the edge.
"I think [the Devils] showed more desperation than we did all night. That showed in the box score," Flyers forward Danny Briere said. "Even though we were able to be up 1-0 [after two], we didn't deserve it."
Clearly disappointed by his team's performance, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette called the game's outcome just.
"They were quicker, they were more competitive on the puck than we were," he said. "There are times where a goaltender stands on his head and you're able to squeak one out, but often times it doesn't last or hold up.... Bryz was phenomenal tonight, but we have to do a better job in front of him."