- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NEWARK -- In this Russian spring of discontent, it would be easy to cast a disparaging eye toward Philadelphia netminder Ilya Bryzgalov as yet another purveyor of disappointment and underachievement.
And while some of that might be fair in the wake of the Flyers' 4-3 overtime loss in Game 3 Thursday night, it would be patently misguided to suggest the team's 2-1 series deficit lies solely at the skates of Mr. Bryzgalov.
Through three games of what many believed would be a mismatch in favor of the high-powered Flyers, it's been the New Jersey Devils who have shown to be harder-working, more resilient and, perhaps most important, a team whose best players are performing at the top of their games when they are needed most.
Ilya Kovalchuk, back in the lineup after missing Game 2 with a lingering back injury, set up the first New Jersey goal on the power play, scored the second 20 seconds later and then assisted on Alexei Ponikarovsky's overtime winner 17:21 into the first overtime period.
Zach Parise, the other charter member of the Devils' must-produce-or-we're-sunk group, scored what looked like would be the winner earlier in the third period.
Not so much.
After going 0-for-5 on the power play in the 4-1 loss in Game 2, the Flyers failed to score on two overtime power-play opportunities in Game 3.
No one gets two power-play chances in overtime, but it happened in this game. On one of them, Devils defenseman Mark Fayne lost his stick and ended up taking Parise's stick, meaning the Flyers had a virtual 5-on-3 and still could not capitalize.
After the game, Daniel Briere, who scored and added an assist to assume the playoff-goal-scoring lead with eight, was brutally honest about the team's deficiencies.
"The power plays cost us the game tonight, all around," Briere said. "I was trying to protect it the first two games, saying that good things were going to happen and 'just a matter of time,' but the last two games, the all-around effort on the power play is just not good enough. It seems like we just think that they're going to let us do whatever we want out there.
"Their penalty-kill unit is outworking us by a mile. It's the reason why we lost the last two games. If the power play is hungry, it's a different story; we could be up 3-0 instead of down 2-1. The 10 to 12 guys that are on the power play, it's time to step up here now and want to be out there."
Credit, of course, is due the Devils, who established a record for penalty-killing efficiency during the regular season. And after struggling against Florida in the first round, they have found their penalty-killing groove once more.
But Briere's criticism might well have been leveled at the team's top players as a whole.
Remember when there was all the breathless talk about whether Claude Giroux was the best player in the world after the Pittsburgh series?
The Hearst, Ontario, native still leads all NHL players with 15 points in nine games, but the past two games have been less than memorable for Giroux.
He has turned the puck over, sent passes into oblivion and seemed in general off-kilter, suddenly gone the swagger that was so evident in the first round against Pittsburgh when he was a force.
"I know I've got to step it up. I've got to be a better player. I'm aware of that," Giroux said.
He's got company.
Jaromir Jagr has been a ghost thus far in the series and one wonders if either injury or the toll of his first NHL season after three spent in the Kontinental Hockey League is simply evident.
Scott Hartnell has just two goals in nine games after a career-best 37 during the regular season.
Conversely, the Devils' best players have been terrific.
"I think our penalty kill has been outstanding, Marty Brodeur has been great," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "And it's time and space. And I've said since day one of this series, the best defense is to play in the offensive zone. To get our forecheck going and to make them play in their own end of the ice. I think that's been critical."
Kovalchuk admitted he could barely watch Game 2 back in New Jersey, but said he felt much better Thursday night.
"It was just so good to be back in there," Kovalchuk said. "With two days off, I felt really good and fresh."
On the winning goal, Kovalchuk saw the Flyers trying to make a line change and sent the puck ahead to Ponikarovsky, who swept in from the right and then buried his own rebound.
Like many of the goals that have eluded Bryzgalov this spring, it was neither a Grade A chance nor a muff on his part.
The same can be said of the Devils' first goal, a power-play effort by Patrik Elias that snuck under Bryzgalov's right arm. On the Parise goal that gave the Devils a 3-2 lead, Bryzgalov could not get across the crease quickly enough and Parise tucked the puck between his pads.
If he makes a stop on any of those, this series is in a different place. But those are the stops that he has routinely failed to make thus far.
A subdued Bryzgalov said after the game he remains confident, but with a 3.54 GAA and .878 save percentage through nine games, those are hardly numbers that speak of confidence.
"They have more puck possession, they control the puck better, they're more physical than we are. We've got to change these aspects to probably win the games, I don't know," Bryzgalov said.
Coach Peter Laviolette defended his netminder, saying he didn't think Bryzgalov struggled in Game 3, and you can make that argument. Of course, neither did he shine, and if ordinary is all you're going to get at this time of the year, whether it's from your goaltender or from your power play or your best players, then, well, the road becomes predictably shorter.
And right now that's the road the New Jersey Devils have pushed the favored Flyers onto.