NEW YORK – If NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sent a wish list to Santa this year, one would assume “more goal scoring” would be somewhere close to the top, near “a muzzle for Sean” and “hair like Melrose.”
St. Nick can cross off that first request, as two of the league’s premiere teams scored 13 goals combined Friday night at the Prudential Center.
The New Jersey Devils beat the New York Rangers 8-5 in front of a packed crowd, divided in support of the teams.
“Fans can’t sit there tonight and say they didn’t get their money’s worth,” said Devils Coach Brent Sutter.
Sutter may also be asking for a Melrose-like coif this holiday season.
“If I wasn’t bald before, I’m really bald now,” Sutter said of the hair-raising way his team lost a 5-1 lead, and then scored three more goals for the victory.
There were exciting goals, fights, special teams being special and, maybe most importantly, two teams fighting for position in the Atlantic Division.
“Nights like this one are hard to describe, because there’s so much going on,” Sutter said.
“It was an exciting game to watch, if you’re a fan, but not if you’re a goalie, or if you’re a goalie’s mom, or a goalie’s wife,” said last-net-minder-standing, Scott Clemmensen.
Clemmensen stopped 31 of 36 shots, while his counterpart Henrik Lundqvist stopped 26 of 34 shots on goal.
Lundqvist looked off early in the game, when Jay Pandolfo took the puck shorthanded into the Blueshirts’ zone, one-on-one, and slipped the puck past “King Henrik” on the left side of the net.
The score, coming with only 4:04 off the game clock, is Pandolfo’s sixth career shorthanded goal.
But the Rangers fought back in the extremely physical, tightly-called game.
Markus Naslund scored with just over four minutes left in the first period when the puck went off of the back of his skate and past Clemmensen’s left leg into the net. The officiating crew reviewed the play, and Naslund’s goal counted because no kicking motion was evident.
With the Rangers fans in the crowd answering the home crowd’s taunts more loudly, momentum was momentarily with New York.
Sutter said in the past that momentum swings with special teams, and in one of the biggest games of the season, the Devils’ power play shifted the game into New Jersey’s hands.
While on the power play, Zach Parise fed the puck up the right side boards to Patrick Elias. Elias moved in and sent the puck across the crease to Travis Zajac, who put in from Lundqvist’s left side.
Zajac connected again one minute into the second period. Parise passed the puck behind the net to Zajac, who fired from the left circle. Lundqvist made the initial save, but Parise followed his own rebound and put in the third Devils goal of the game.
After his goal, Zajac and Dan Girardi got into a shoving match that resulted in Zajac going to the locker room. Zajac was forced to the ice, and his head smacked the surface.
Sutter said after the game he was “hopeful” Zajac would be available for Saturday’s game against Buffalo, but was unsure of his status.
Later in the second period, the Devils took a solid lead with a goal by Dainius Zubrus and another shorthanded goal by Johnny Oduya.
Generally a four-goal lead in the second period would be considered safe, but when New York and New Jersey get together, nothing is safe until the final buzzer.
At 15:46, Nikolai Zherdev faked Clemmensen down onto the ice and then wrapped the puck around the net for New York’s second goal. Scott Gomez, a former long-time Devil and current public enemy number one in Newark, won the face off that resulted in Zherdev’s goal.
Gomez, booed every time he touched the puck, quieted some in the stands when he put in his own rebound off of a pass from Zherdev three minutes later.
Heading into the third period, the Rangers had put themselves back into the game. They proved they were not going away when Paul Mara fired from the point a minute-and-a-half into the final session and the puck went over Clemmensen’s shoulder.
Just a one goal game, both teams fought off penalties and breakaway opportunities.
Lundqvist made a spectacular save on Parise three minutes into the third, when Parise was streaking to the net all alone. Lundqvist knocked the puck just wide right of the net.
New York tied the game at five with 8:42 left in the game when Ryan Callahan slipped a puck between Clemmensen’s arm and body on the left side of the net.
“He found a hole there,” said Clemmensen.
The Devils did not wallow in pity for losing a four goal lead. They instead charged right back.
“We’ve been guilty of letting teams back into games since I’ve been here. We’ve come out on top of all of them,” said Clemmensen.
Nine seconds after the game-tying goal, Patrick Elias and linemates Zubrus and Brian Gionta pushed the puck up ice, and before the Rangers realized it, Elias had taken back the lead for the Devils.
The Zubrus line was not done, and 95 seconds later, it was Gionta’s turn to backhand a puck past Lundqvist. Zubrus, on the left side of the net, made a cross-crease pass to Gionta, who faked right and moved to his left to push the puck behind Lundqvist.
Gionta had four points (1g, 3a) on the evening, and his linemates had 3 each (1g, 2a for both Elias and Zubrus).
“That line has done a lot of very good things here. They stepped up,” said Sutter.
To cap off the evening, the Devils captain got into the action in all senses. First, Jamie Langenbrunner added New Jersey’s eighth goal with five minutes left in the game when he wristed a puck top shelf and in. Parise earned his fourth assist of the night on the goal.
“I think we scored eight goals the whole year against Lundqvist last year,” Parise said after the game.
Langenbrunner then took on Callahan against the boards across from the benches, moments after the goal. Both received five minutes for fighting, the fourth such penalty for each team.
New Jersey staved off two more Ranger power plays, ensuring the Blueshirts a 0-9 performance with a man advantage, as well as giving up those two shorthanded goals.
The Rangers are last in the league with 10 shorthanded goals allowed this season.
The physicality of the Devils overcame the speed and quickness of the Rangers Friday night. The Devils out-hit the Rangers 16-7, including six hits by the recently-returned Bobby Holik.
New Jersey had the equivalent of two periods worth of penalties called against them, including the 20 minutes worth of fighting majors. New York also had 20 minutes of fighting majors, and added 12 more penalty minutes for a grand total of 32.
“There were good parts and there were bad parts. Overall, we played well,” defenseman Colin White said.
The Devils are now 9-1 in their last 10 games, moving within six points of the division leading Rangers.
When asked how to keep the winning streak going, Gionta responded, “We just try to keep it simple, not to look to far ahead.”
Not looking to far ahead will be easy this weekend. The Devils face the Sabres at home Saturday night at the Prudential Center.
But for the evening, the Devils can celebrate a big victory over their rivals. The win was the first in regulation over New York since Sutter took over the Devils.
It will certainly be a game Sutter remembers for a long time.
“It was one of the strangest games I’ve been a part of as a coach.”