It was a strange game, one that was very schizophrenic as to which team had the momentum from time to time, but in the end it was a bad line change that led to Alexei Ponikarovsky's game-winning goal in the New Jersey Devils' 4-3 overtime victory against the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night at the Prudential Center.
The teams took turns dominating territorial play and pinning their opponents deep in their own end, but Philadelphia made several costly mental mistakes that led to poorly executed defensive zone coverage, including on the game-winning goal.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed Game 2 with a lower-body injury but returned for Game 3 with extra jump, controlled the puck at center ice as he skated back towards his own zone in the latter stages of overtime as Philadelphia made a line change. Kovalchuk alertly spotted Ponikarovsky at the Flyers' blue line and hit him with a perfect pass.
"Poni" -- who has been a perennial Flyer-killer throughout his career, and scored four of his 14 regular season goals against Philly while with the Carolina Hurricanes and Devils this year -- took the pass and moved in on the Philadelphia net with only defenseman Andreas Lilja back. As Lilja decided to stay in front of the net and guard against a potential cross-crease pass to defender Andy Greene, who noticed the bad change and smartly jumped into the play, Ilya Bryzgalov stopped the first Ponikarovsky shot. But Lilja did not move out to take the hulking Devils' forward, who grabbed his own rebound and sent a backhander past the Philly netminder at 17:21 the first overtime period. It was his first goal of this postseason in 10 games played.
In addition to the game-winning goal, Flyers' defensive zone coverage gaffes combined to cost them the game:
- Midway through the third period, defenseman Matt Carle was beaten to the side of the net on Zach Parise's third period goal. Parise had sent the puck around behind the net for Patrik Elias, but the pass was intercepted by Lilja. Elias managed to steal the puck back and found Parise at the far post for a quick shot past Bryzgalov before the goalie could get over to cover the side of the cage. The goal gave New Jersey a 3-2 lead with just 12:31 left in regulation.
- Shortly after Elias had tied the game with a power-play goal, Kovalchuk was given the puck as he was roaring through the slot. Usually rock-steady Nicklas Grossmann ended up going over to cover Travis Zajac, who was already being covered by Braydon Coburn. The bad decision left Kovalchuk with the entire slot area open, and the sniper picked the corner over Bryzgalov's glove side just 20 seconds after Elias' tally to give the Devils their first lead of the night at 2-1.
- Following Carle's goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the second period, James van Riemsdyk tucked a rebound past Martin Brodeur to seemingly give the Orange-and-Black the lead. But Brayden Schenn -- who had scored the game's first goal -- was nabbed for goaltender interference for clipping Brodeur on his path across the crease. It was difficult to surmise as to whether the contact -- which appeared to be Schenn's skate or stick brushing the Devils' goalie -- actually knocked Brodeur down, or if the net minder was flopping in an attempt to draw a penalty. The call was made, and the Flyers did not take the lead.
After Danny Briere tied the game to send it to overtime, the Flyers were given a golden opportunities to end the contest and wrest home ice advantage back away from New Jersey. But the man advantage, which had been so much a part of the Flyers' lethal attack in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and that had scored earlier in the game, fell silent, including not recording a single shot on the second power play.
While the Devils are earning everything they are achieving, Philadelphia's cluelessness with respect to its defensive zone coverage has been disturbing.
Combined with ill-timed Flyers' mental lapses, New Jersey took full advantage in snatching a 2-1 lead in the series.