Attending a playoff game in which your team jumps ahead to a 3-0 lead is thrilling for a fan. Surrendering that lead and losing the game is miserable. Fans of the New Jersey Devils found this to be true Tuesday night as the Florida Panthers turned the game totally around and stole a 4-3 victory right out of the mouths of Peter DeBoer’s team.
The game was thrilling to watch, especially in the twenty minutes after the Panthers switched goaltenders from Jose Theodore to Scott Clemmensen. The Panthers stuck four unanswered goals up on the board, shocking the world by taking the W out of a seemingly impossible situation. But just because the game was fantastically thrilling does not mean there were not some moments to stop and reflect. That’s exactly what I did while watching the soon-to-be legendary comeback, and a few thoughts came to mind:
Throwing the puck at the net is almost always the right decision. Case and point comes from Florida’s first goal of the game, a power play goal belonging to Sean Bergenheim. However, the play could not have happened without the simplest hockey play in the book. As he crossed the red line, Scottie Upshall wisely decided to shoot the puck directly on goal instead of dumping the puck around the boards. The Panthers got lucky as a result: Brodeur dropped a rebound right into the skating lane of Bergy, and he shot the puck over Brodie’s shoulders to get the Cats on the board. Also consider the shot on goal by Dmitry Kulikov against Johan Hedberg: he shot a harmless wrister right off Moose’s chest, as the puck then trickled behind him and just wide of the net. To stack up even more evidence, a Panthers player threw a blind shot right off Hedberg’s pads earlier in the game – the rebound fell right to Marcel Goc, who was given a lot of net to shoot at but was denied by a great save from Moose.
Such a simple play, yet so underutilized. Especially when speedsters like Bergenheim can pick up loose pucks before most defensemen, throwing the puck off the goalie and looking for a rebound theoretically makes more sense then trying to reestablish puck possession behind the net. There shouldn’t be any reason to try to engage in a battle when setting up a play when one could instead try to sneak in an easy goal right away. That theory seems simplistic, but it certainly worked in last night’s scenario.
Scott Clemmensen should be the unquestioned starter for Game 4. Hey, we all love Jose, and a rational hockey fan would not be able to totally blame the guy for the three early goals. However, it was a stroke of genius by Kevin Dineen to pull Theodore when he did. The philosophy was to create a new mindset for the skaters, whatever it took to refocus after those three ugly goals. The players responded in a big way and came all the way back to take the lead. Everything after that was all Clem. The man was a wall, shutting out the Devils for the final 54 minutes of the game. Even in the toughest of situations against some of the game’s best scorers, Scott stood strong as the pressure and tension rose.
Many fans thought Clemmensen was the go-to guy going into the series, and they might have been right. They’ll get their chance to see if they were right on Thursday. Even though Theodore has been solid so far this postseason, Clemmensen has been spectacular. That gets the leg up in most cases.
There is can be a great playoff series without “goonery”. Take a gander at any other series in hockey right now. There are talks of suspensions for key players, goalies are being mowed over, guys are flopping, fights are all over the ice. Hockey pundits are unsure if this falls under the protective cover of “settling scores” and “playoff-style hockey” or if it crosses the line. But if they saw the Panthers-Devils series to this point, they would know that those items aren’t necessary to have a solid series.
After three hard-fought games, there has been no controversy over hits, no injuries of note, and no really bad blood. The series so far has been just the way Commissioner Bettman probably wants it: intense and packed with offense, but still totally in control and within the confines of common sense. If only the Flyers, Penguins, and especially one of those two team’s captain would pay attention to how a playoff series should be played. There would be a lot less concern about the direction of hockey, and maybe Brendan Shanahan could get some sleep.
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