NHL Playoffs 2012: 5 Things the Devils Must Do to Keep Control of Their Series
Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils edged out the Philadelphia Flyers late in overtime to take control of their series, 2-1. The Flyers will look to even the series in Game 4, Sunday night in Newark.
The win may have come as a surprise to many, who saw the Flyers' dominance in the first round—paired with a less-than-stellar Devils team—as a sign that the team was on their way to a Conference Finals appearance.
Now, the Flyers are faced with the tough task of winning three of the next four games, while the Devils must simply go .500 for the rest of the series.
Game 4 will be huge (as are most Game 4s), as it will either even the series for the Flyers, restoring their home-ice advantage, or give the Devils a near-insurmountable obstacle to overcome.
So will New Jersey be able to keep this up? Here are five things the Devils must do if they want to remain in control of their series against the Flyers.
Kill Those Penalties
After a historically good penalty kill this season, the Devils found their PK to nearly be their undoing against the Florida Panthers.
They've been doing better against the Flyers, but they currently sit at 13th among playoff teams with a 74.4 penalty-kill percentage, so there's clearly still room for improvement.
So far against the Devils, the Flyers are just 2-for-16 with the extra man, numbers in stark contrast to their 12-for-23 dominance of the Penguins.
Devils' fans would hope that means the Devils have rediscovered their shorthanded dominance, while Flyers' fans might just look at it as an area where they need to step up.
One thing's for sure, though: killing penalties can win games. The Devils felt that in full force Thursday when two overtime penalty-kills let them slowly build confidence and momentum. By the second kill, the Devils were the team getting the chances, making their opponents scramble. Shortly after, the Devils' game-winner was scored.
If the Devils want to win the series, step one is maintaining the positives, and their PK has been a huge positive. If they can keep it strong, it will give them a good shot at winning the series.
Covering Weak Areas
I've mentioned in the past how weak the Devils' power play was this year. They finished second-to-last in the league with a 47.1 win-percentage, behind only the Calgary Flames. The Flyers finished 24th, at 48.3.
In this series, the Devils have won 90 faceoffs to the Flyers' 98. In their two wins, they played them evenly in the face-off circle. They're still losing overall, but for such a weak area, the Devils are covering those situations as well as one could hope for.
Another area where the Devils struggled during the regular season was in hits. They finished 23rd, with 1,677 hits (compared to the league-leading Rangers' 2,419). The Flyers were tied for sixth in the league, with 2,058.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast with the playoffs. Currently, the Devils are leading the league in hits, with 367. Philly sits in fifth, more than 80 hits behind. This is a result of a number of players stepping up: David Clarkson predictably leads the Devils with 37. Dainius Zubrus is directly behind with 36. Fourth-liner Steve Bernier has been a pleasant surprise, contributing 34 hits (as many as Brian Boyle or Brandon Prust) and Zach Parise and Alexei Ponikarovsky each have 30.
It's certainly possible to win a series without being physical, but against a team like the Flyers—or, should the Devils advance, perhaps the Rangers in the next round—a lack of physicality will equal submission to the opponent.
The fact that the Devils have risen to the occasion and competed physically, game after game, speaks highly of how hard they're willing to play to win.
Keep Shutting Down Giroux & Co.
Claude Giroux came into this series leading the league (by a substantial margin) with six goals and eight assists for fourteen points. In his three games against the Devils, he has... one goal.
Giroux's frequent linemates, Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr, have also come into struggles against the Devils: Hartnell has just two assists and Jagr one. Meanwhile, the trio have a combined minus-eight rating.
The Flyers have boatloads of secondary scorers: Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, Sean Couturier (when healthy), Brayden Schenn, Maxime Talbot, James van Riemsdyk and most importantly, Danny Briere. But shutting down a top line is important, as a message from one team to the other that says, "We can handle what you throw at us," and that is a message the Devils are getting through right now.
This sort of shut-down play is reminiscent of the Devils' cup teams; to be specific, I'm sure John Madden is proud.
The Devils are showing a type of resilience you don't see often from them. Admittedly, that is in large part thanks to the Flyers.
So far, the team scoring first has lost eight of nine games that the Flyers took part in. All three games of the second round followed this trend: The Flyers scored first in Games 2 and 3, eventually dropping both. Zach Parise scored the first goal of the series, and the Devils eventually lost 4-3 in overtime.
When trailing first, the Devils boast a .500 win percentage, fourth among playoff teams (the Flyers and Los Angeles Kings both have not lost games in which their opponents scored first.
Meanwhile, the Devils are also tied with Philly for lead league in third period goals with 11. On top of that, they are 3-1 in overtime games.
The Devils have shown time and again these playoffs that they aren't going to give up on games where they're down, even if they're being outplayed. Luckily, the Devils have been able to capitalize on their persistence, pulling out wins when they could easily have accepted losses.
The Flyers are the only team that have enjoyed immense offensive success thus far, but the Devils are finding scoring from all sorts of places.
14 different players have contributed at least four points. Four might not seem like a huge number, but when most of your roster is producing, it's a very good sign.
Bryce Salvador, Zubrus, Ponikarovsky, Marek Zidlicky, Peter Harrold, Stephen Gionta and Adam Henrique each have four points.
On top of them, Patrik Elias has five points, Clarkson seven, Parise eight and Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac nine.
Most important among all the scoring though, is that all but three players on the roster—Kovalchuk, Elias and Andy Greene—have minus ratings. Petr Sykora and Mark Fayne both have zeros, but everyone else on the team is a plus, with Salvador leading at plus-six.
For a team that has almost always been defense-oriented, this marked change in game strategy could have long-standing effects on the franchise.