Down 3-1 to begin the third period in New Jersey, the odds had Vegas closing shop and headin' on home.
The latest Habs-Devils matchup couldn't have looked more redundant. The Canadiens played here in vain throughout the Bush administration. The trouncing of the Bruins on Tuesday night must have been the result of a Guy Carbonneau speech that would have included the following reminder: "Look, you ass warts, we all know we're gonna get raped in Jersey on Thursday, so we better come out hungry tonight and get those two points".
Psychology and sports. Like Denzel and passionate pleas from a prison cell. The Bruins boss the NHL around all year but can only boast a good but not great record because the Habs, in handing them a quarter of their losses so far, have balanced out their results. Embattled Boston faces the Habs and the Bruins suddenly look smaller, slower, feeble. Montreal is to Boston what New Jersey is to Montreal. The Habs require mental bypass surgery to get through the psychological blockade that inevitably leaves them clueless in a Brodeur crease.
Outwardly, a New Jersey-Montreal game usually looks like a bore. A slow tempo display of Devil patience in a game of low risk trapping and containment. It offers the few remnants of the NHL in the dark years, a nothing's changed cadence of three evenly dull periods in the blandest show hockey has to offer.
If the editors in New Jersey had commissioned the Another Day at the Office headline for the following day's sports section during the second intermission, those orders had to be called back 30 seconds into the third, when the Habs decided to leave the past behind and pen a fresh new story for this game.
Because, truth be told, this game really started in the third period. With a Brian Smolinski finally parking himself where he is paid to be, in front of the net, 2 goals would come off his stick. His second of the night, the early marker to begin the third, erased the New Jersey momentum conjured by the Elias goal in the second that had made it 3-1 and given the impression that the game was out of reach.
The Kovalev line appeared to draw much from this early sign of promise and resumed its inexplicable brand of genius from there on end. With Kovalev a master of puck possession, the line willed itself into the New Jersey zone. And there it stayed. And there it was joined, by the whole team, with every line taking its turn at pushing New Jersey deeper and deeper into their own end. With that came inevitable attempts to thwart the Montreal blitz, a tactic which only yielded a flurry of Devil penalties and an ensuing abundance of scoring chances for the NHL's premier power play unit.
We can attempt to lend Montreal Braveheart desire and label this game their unflinching dedication to a win in New Jersey. No need for the exaggeration. This was just a result of focus, work, and a good use of the team's most prized asset: speed. That, and the levelling out required by the law of averages; Montreal had to win in New Jersey one day.
It comes as little surprise that the Habs found cracks in a team that has begun to move away from the quasi dynasty built over the better part of the last decade. While still inspired by phenomenal goaltending, the Devils of yesterday were not constructed with the image of the new NHL in mind. Stripped away on the blue line with the departures of Rafalski, Niedermayer and Stevens, the rigid steel that opposing forwards feared at the back now bends, seemingly at will, should a team want it enough. Age, evolution and change in the way the game is played, all these things have aided in arresting New Jersey's imposing march. Despite its apparent demise, the franchise still manges to maintain and cultivate this aura of greatness, incredibly in the middle of oft-neglected New Jersey, the likes of which only certain teams in this league have managed to thread as part of their fabric. Everyone in New Jersey, including Martin Brodeur, knows who to thank for that. Even in a new found mediocrity, the Devils still appear to be great.
Last night, this evidence of mortality paid Montreal 2 much welcomed points. And with them, more importantly, the comfort in knowing that the Devils can now finally be beaten in New Jersey.