On Friday, the hockey gods summoned for my first NHL game of the season, as the New Jersey Devils faced off with the Colorado Avalanche.
The Devils were making headlines throughout the summer, as they continually attempted to re-sign free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract. The Devils had acquired the superstar winger in a trade with Atlanta in February, and Kovalchuk responded by averaging a point-per-game for the rest of the season. His play convinced management to make him a franchise centerpiece for the next decade.
Unfortunately for the Devils, there were some bumps in the road. Their first contract with Kovalchuk was rejected by the NHL, as the 17-year, $102-million deal was cited for circumventing salary cap rules. After another month passed with the Russian sniper back on the open market, New Jersey finally secured their investment with a 15-year, $100-million contract. It was just one in a series of off-season moves the Devils made, in an attempt to remain a perennial playoff contender.
The Avalanche, on the other hand, remained under-the-radar this off-season. Once a model for success -- with Stanley Cup victories in 1996 and 2001 -- Colorado is now trying to return to NHL prominence, with a steady influx of young players. Leading the charge is forward Matt Duchene, the #3 overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Duchene led all NHL rookies with 24 goals last year, and was a key cog as the Avalanche made a surprising playoff appearance. Colorado management hopes that 2009 was only a small sign of things to come for the franchise.
As the teams prepared for the opening puck drop, Newark's Prudential Center was only about two-thirds full. For years, the Devils have struggled with attendance -- especially early in the season. Couple that with a Yankees playoff game occurring at the same time, and that further exacerbated the issue. The 12,221 who were present for the game, however, were loud and boisterous -- with the overwhelming majority anxious for a Devils' victory.
The Devils came out firing -- peppering Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson with shots. Anderson, a 29-year-old in his 2nd season with Colorado, was up to the task -- stopping 17 New Jersey shots in the 1st period alone! The Avs could only muster 3 shots on goal in the opening stanza, but one of them found the back of the net against future Hall-of-Fame goalie Martin Brodeur. Cody McLeod's wrist shot from the left circle resulted in a power play goal -- and a 1-0 Colorado lead, midway through the 1st period. Not even 30 seconds later, McLeod was ejected for a major boarding penalty against Devils' rookie defenseman Matt Taormina, but the Devils could not take advantage of the ensuing 5-minute power play. The Avs held a 1-0 lead at the 1st intermission.
The ice wasn't as tilted in the middle frame. The two teams almost evenly traded shots on goal, with the Avalanche padding their lead at the 11:48 mark of the 2nd period. A Chris Stewart slap shot from the left circle as skillfully saved by Brodeur, but the rebound was tucked in by T.J. Galiardi. The Avs' forward, who scored 15 goals last season, tallied his 1st of the year for a 2-0 Colorado lead. Fans throughout the Prudential Center were dumbfounded -- the upstart Avalanche, despite a major disadvantage in shots on goal, were getting the best of the Devils.
New Jersey would answer exactly 3 minutes later. With the Devils on the power play, Taormina wound up and took a slap shot from about 10 feet inside the blue line. Anderson couldn't see through the mass of bodies in front of the goal crease, and the puck found its way into the back of the net! The goal horn blasted, the fans stood, clapped and cheered in unison, and Matt Taormina celebrated his 1st National Hockey League goal. The deficit was cut in half - it was now 2-1 Colorado. It would remain that way through the end of the 2nd period.
As the 3rd period got underway, the Devils were desperate for a goal to tie things up. Anderson was up to the task, flawlessly protecting the Avalanche net during the first few minutes. Colorado then received a valuable insurance goal, as Stewart fired a perfectly-placed slap shot from about 30 feet away over Brodeur's shoulder and just inside the goal posts. Once again, the Avs enjoyed a two-goal advantage, 3-1, with 15:29 remaining in the game.
The Devils would not wilt. They continued their assault on Anderson, finally breaking through when Kovalchuk scored his 2nd of the season on a deadly wrist shot. With just over 11 minutes remaining, the score was now 3-2, Colorado. Can the comeback continue?
In all, the Devils outshot the Avalanche 16-7 in the 3rd period, and fired 43 pucks at Anderson during the course of the game. But despite a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in shots on goal, the Devils could not come up with the game-tying tally. Time ran out, and the Avs celebrated a 3-2 victory, mobbing Anderson near his goal crease with congratulatory pats on the helmet.
Devils' fans filed out of the Prudential Center, seeking answers. New Jersey had stumbled to a 1-3-1 start to the season, while Colorado improved their record to 3-1. Did the Devils' offense run into a hot goalie, or are there underlying problems?
Two games, two different sports -- both contests coming down to the wire. With football and hockey already conquered, playoff baseball remained -- featuring a pitching matchup that was billed as one of the best in recent postseason history...
To be continued (again)...
Colorado goalie Craig Anderson makes one of his 41 saves against the Devils