That certainly was not a pretty win by any means, but it was a win nonetheless. The Devils had one strong period surrounded by two sleepy ones and got away with two points against a very injured, very bad team. Of course, none of that matters if Ilya Kovalchuk is seriously hurt, but we'll reserve judgement until we hear something from the Devils. Some thoughts...
Two points is two points: We've talked about the Devils racking up standing points regardless of style and that was precisely what tonight's game was about. The Devils won't admit it, but it looks to me like they overlooked the Panthers. They came out flat and were pretty de-energized in the third period, as well (wonder if that late goal had anything to do with it?). The good news is they had a very strong second period and got just enough goals to beat one of the worst teams in the league. With the Senators winning earlier in the day and the Rangers and Canes each possessing a game in hand, the Devils just have to points on top of points. More importantly, they have to win games at home against teams they should beat -- like the Panthers. Martin Brodeur didn't have to be great -- although he had a great moment here and there in career win No. 666 -- but he was sharp enough outside of that brain fart behind the net at the end of the second period. More importantly, this win puts pressure on the teams around the Devils to keep up, which can only help New Jersey. Hell, at this point, the Devils could be within four points of fifth place with a win over Ottawa on Tuesday and that's ahead of a sweepable two-game trip to the Florida teams next weekend. All in all, the Devils have things to work (the power play, for one), but they can leave the arena tonight knowing they did enough to help their playoff positioning and these days that's really the only thing that matters.
The wounded: Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Bryce Salvador and Tim Sestito. That's a hell of an injury list at the end of a game. The good news: the last three on that list should all be fine. Zajac's injury was initial numbness from a slash during a second period. My guess is the stick made direct contact with a nerve right where the glove ends and the wrist is unprotected. Salvador said afterward he was OK after a knee-on-knee hit along the boards in the final seconds. Believe it or not, Salvador said his knee braces probably saved him from any sort of real injury. As for Sestito, we'll get into the hit in a bit here, but DeBoer said after the game that he's fine -- which is pretty lucky considering what the hit looked like at first. With all that out of the way, obviously the main concern is Kovalchuk, who was in noticeable pain IMMEDIATELY after his shoulder went into the boards. And did you see the way DeBoer was talking after the game? Normally reserved, cautious, measured and secretive in all of his injury updates, DeBoer basically sounded like a man ready to lose his star player for more than a "little while." We'll go into more depth on the injury tomorrow once we know what it is, but safe to say the Devils would be in major trouble if they lost Kovalchuk for anything more than a week -- and it sounds like it'll be at least that, if not more. DeBoer will address the media tomorrow at 1 p.m. and I'd bet we find out at least some specifics then.
It's a second line party: Pretty safe to say the Devils wouldn't have won tonight's game without the line of Patrik Elias, Zajac and David Clarkson. Beyond the fact that the trio combined for the Devils' only two goals of the game, the trio pretty much dominated the entire second period. If Kovy is out for any sort of extended period, they will have to carry the entire time -- and I mean carry. The good news is that Zajac appears to have awoken from his offensive slumber and is basically doing it all over the last three games. The better news is that Clarkson woke up too, with the most David Clarkson goal ever. It wasn't just that Clarkson finally scored that was relieving (although it's about damn time), but that he did it by charging the net, not giving up on a loose puck and finally putting that loose puck in the net. Will that garbage goal get him going? I have no idea, but it certainly can't hurt for the Devils to have their leading scorer (seriously, he's STILL their leading scorer with 12 goals) putting pucks in the back of the net. As for Elias, he continues to be Mr. Reliable. We joked earlier in the year about Clarkson's asking price rising with every goal, but, to paraphrase Childish Gambino, Elias is doing himself a ton of favors contract-wise. Despite his advanced age, Elias continues to demonstrate enough speed to split defensemen and streak his way to a pretty one-touch goal while also having the veteran savvy to know exactly when and where to rush. Despite the Kovy injury, I don't foresee DeBoer splitting this trio up and that means they'll be expected to produce for however long the Devils' superstar is shelved.
Suspension coming: We mentioned the Sestito hit earlier in the post, but I wanted to save the specifics for its own point. There's absolutely NO WAY that Colby Robak should escape suspension here. Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta got five games for doing the exact same thing to the Rangers' Brad Richards. Now, Robak obviously doesn't have the same rap sheet at Kaleta, which is why I don't think it'll be a five-game ban. That said, there's not many better examples of one of the kind of hit that Brendan Shanahan says he's trying to get out of the game. Sestito clearly had his back to Robak and was about foot and a half from the boards when Robak pushed Sestito in the back and sent his head and shoulder careening into the boards. Was it a heavy shove? No. I even hesitate to call it a push. It was more like Robak was making a gentle suggestion of which direction Sestito should go. However, the players have seen enough evidence on the AHL and NHL level to know what happens when a player is the position Sestito was. All of of his weight was clearly leaning forward and he was 100 percent unable to protect himself from the "hit." DeBoer says Sestito will be OK, but the Rangers said the same thing about Richards. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if Sestito misses a practice or two and maybe even a game to heal or maybe even sell the injury to guarantee suspension.
Seven days: That game got pretty chippy in the third period, with the Panthers playing through the whistle. I don't blame them. After all, what do they have to lose? Most of them are playing to prove they belong on the roster next season, let alone playing for ice time right now. But soft is definitely not a word you would use to describe these Devils. With these teams set to play again in Miami next Saturday, I foresee some retribution for the hits on Salvador and Sestito. In fact, we may even see Krys Barch dress for the simple purpose of laying someone the eff out in the first period. Make no mistake, if Barch had dressed tonight, someone would've had to pay for the Robak hit since Robak was in the locker room. The Devils also are not stupid, so don't expect them to go and run Jonathan Huberdeau in the first period to prove point. Look for a very physical but smart response from New Jersey early on that sends a message but doesn't put the Devils in a compromising position early in the game. If the game gets out of hand? Well -- that's another story entirely.
Notes: That post-to-post save by Brodeur in the second period on a 2-on-1 breakaway was a pretty, pretty save. ... Insert 666 joke here. ... As good as the forecheck was Thursday, it was the exact opposite for roughly 75 percent of tonight's game. The Devils got away with it because of the opponent, but that won't be the case Tuesday in Ottawa or next Friday in Tampa. ... I'm sorry, but 25 shots against this Panthers team is terrible. The Devils, at one point, went over 17 minutes (between the first and second periods) without a shot on goal. ... Matt D'Agostini has some serious wheels attached to his ankles. You can see why the Devils took a flier on the kid. I think he can definitely help (on scale) for a time, especially if Kovy is going to miss a long stretch. ... Great backcheck by Florida's Tyson Strachan at the end of the first period. Kovy and Adam Henrique had a 2-on-1 and Henrique appeared to have an easy path to a backhander into the empty net. Strachan, however, had other ideas, rushing back into the zone and stickchecking Henrique, which kept him from getting a shot off. Textbook stuff there. ... Huberdeau is really good. The Panthers have a keeper in that one. Let's just hope he develops better than some of the other top Panthers draft picks of years past. ... Reading through my notes and it's amazing how many times Kovy's name appears. You can't overstate how devastating a loss he would be. ... I liked seeing Andrei Loktionov manning the halfboards on the first power-play unit. I like the idea of putting him, Kovy and Zidlicky in position to direct the puck and make plays. ... Speaking of Lokti, I wonder what will happen to him with Kovy sidelined. Will DeBoer knock him down to the third line line and move Henrique up to replace some of Kovy's firepower? Lots of ripples from this injury. ... That five-minute power play was awful. Just awful. ... My two favorite defensive plays of the game came in the final minute. One, Stephen Gionta's diving pokecheck off a defensive-zone faceoff (with the extra attacker on) and then eventual second effort to make sure the puck got out of the zone. Two, Clarkson's pickpocket of a Panthers forward attempting to enter the Devils' zone with about 30 seconds left in the game. It was so smooth. Both players are examples of the little things the Devils do to seal games.