NEWARK, NJ – Eerily reminiscent of a game not so long ago, when the Hurricanes scored two late goals to beat the Devils at home, New Jersey took a one goal lead into the third period against Carolina Saturday afternoon.
With the score 2-1, it was apparent that the Devils needed to play 60 complete minutes of hockey if they were to win the final regular season game.
“We knew there was 20 minutes left, and if we played well, we couldn’t sit back too much,” Dainius Zubrus said about preventing a serious case of déjà vu.
Recent history seemed like it would repeat itself, if only through Hurricane dedication.
Anton Babchuk scored his second goal of the game 4:42 into the third period on a power play to tie the game at two and quiet the Prudential Center crowd.
Ray Whitney and Rod Brind’Amour cycled the puck and set up Babchuk at the point. Babchuk sent a laser of a shot in, and it flipped under Martin Brodeur’s stick and into the net.
But the Devils maintained composure and continued to battle for pucks and play the aggressive brand of hockey they’ve been known for all season.
At 15:34, Brian Gionta picked up the puck along the boards to the right of Hurricanes goaltender Michael Leighton. Gionta carried the puck behind the net, going just far enough to force Leighton to give up some space by the post.
Gionta passed the puck to Zubrus, who was ready and open on the right post. Zubrus had the hockey-equivalent of a slam dunk for the game winning goal.
“Brian did a good job carrying the puck far enough where their goalie, he obviously thought he was going to go all the way around. And once he came back, I had a line to shoot on,” Zubrus explained.
“It was bouncing around in the corner and I picked it up with my feet. He was coming in the perfect lane that I could see him and I left it short side for him,” Gionta added.
The goal stood as the game winner for the remaining 4:26, giving the Devils a club-record 51 wins for the season and a 4-out-of-5 winning streak heading into the playoffs.
“It was important to play well in a game like this. It was important for us to finish off,” coach Brent Sutter said.
The players agreed with their coach.
“This is how it’s going to be in the playoffs. They’re going to be close games, one-goal games. You look at it as a test and make sure we come up on top,” defenseman Bryce Salvador said.
In addition to playing well for the entire 60-minute final exam Saturday, the Devils got lucky early.
Funny bounces off the boards twice duped Leighton, which led to the first two Devils goals.
David Clarkson opened up scoring with a goal on a wide open net just under three minutes into the game. Brian Rolston fed the puck to Clarkson, and he put the puck in for his 17th of the season and second in four games.
New Jersey used an odd bounce again on a delayed penalty when Zach Parise joined the offensive rush. Niclas Havelid sent the puck in, and instead of going all the way around the net, it bounced nearly perfectly onto Parise’s stick, and the team-leading scorer put in his 45th goal of the season, and his team record-tying 58th point of the season at home.
New Jersey used the early lead to maintain an aggressive style, poking pucks away in the neutral zone and outshooting Carolina 35-25 for the game.
All of Carolina’s offense occurred during special teams’ time.
Babchuk scored his first power play goal at 6:34 in the first much in the same manner as his game-tying goal in the third. His lightning-bolt shot from the point got past Brodeur on a power play after Zubrus was called for hooking.
“They had a couple tonight that just streaked in there. Anton has a great shot, and if we play these guys in the first round, we’ll definitely be looking at tape,” Salvador said.
Playing these same Hurricanes was still a definite possibility as the final horn buzzed. Carolina, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were all tied with 97 points, with either Carolina or Pittsburgh slotted to play the Devils in the first round.
The final match-ups wouldn’t be decided until Philadelphia played again on Sunday to end the season, but it did not matter to the players in the home locker room.
“I don’t think we’re going to be picking who we’re playing,” Zubrus said. “If we are playing (Carolina), good. If not, I think this was a good game to build on.”
Now, as the “Second Season” begins, the question returns to see if the Devils can construct a serious run at Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time since the lockout.