Devils On The Outside Looking In
By Nate Schiller, WFUV Sports
Who would have thought the defending Eastern Conference Championships would find themselves without a playoff berth with less than 10 games left in the season?
Tied for 9th place with the Winnipeg Jets is right where the Devils are after losing, 3-2, in a shootout in Buffalo on Sunday night, extending their winless streak to seven for the first time since 1986 (a year New Jersey finished last in what was then the Patrick Division). With only 9 games left in this year’s lockout-shortened season, the Devils sit two points behind a pair of local Atlantic rivals: the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers.
Injuries remain a large part of the Devils’ misfortune, with the start of their most recent losing streak coinciding with the loss of star winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a self-induced shoulder injury in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers on March 23rd. New Jersey saw a similar slide earlier in the season, dropping six in a row at the end of February after losing aging netminder Martin Brodeur to a back injury. Brodeur has started every game since Kovy’s hard fall into the offensive zone boards, but New Jersey is 0-3-4 in that stretch despite matching or outshooting their opponents in every game.
Closing has become a problem for the Red and Black in more ways than one. First, the Devils have struggled to close out games, letting contests against Florida and Tampa Bay go to overtime after surrendering game-tying goals with less than 30 seconds remaining in empty net situations. More importantly, New Jersey has failed to close on scoring chances, failing to find the back of the net in 5-on-5 play despite dominating opponents in both shots and possession. This was especially evident in road games against Boston and Buffalo, where the Devils unleashed 40 and 39 shots respectively, failing to find twine at even strength and ultimately losing heartbreakers in each game.
Adding on to the problems of closing is New Jersey’s horrendous performance after regulation is over. Even in games where the Devils do manage to find goals playing 5-on-5, their inability to hold leads has sent them to numerous overtimes and shootouts, where they’ve has struggled throughout the year. Jersey leads the league in overtime losses with 10, and has a 2-7 shootout record, going 0-6 on the road despite going 12-4 in the skills competition last year.
Kovalchuk’s untimely injury is a big part of the team struggling to close out games and to perform in the shootout, but the Devils’ problems are greater than the loss of their best offensive player. New Jersey’s other stars have failed to step up, adding pressure on Brodeur, whose age has shown in some of his recent starts. David Clarkson, who, at one point, fans thought could score another 30 goals despite only having half a season to work with, scored only two goals in the month of March, in addition to only one assist and a -5 goal differential. Adam Henrique performed better in that span, leading the team with six goals in that span, but has 0 points in April.
One of the few positives still remaining in New Jersey, it seems, is the offense the Devils manage to get out of their penalty kill. New Jersey leads the league in short-handed goals with 10, including a late tally from Mark Fayne down a man against the Sabres to earn the Devils at least a point before falling in the skills competition. Despite the need for wins down the stretch, that one point could prove to be crucial as it puts Jersey within a game of tying one of the New York teams for a playoff spot.
Another positive is the play of some of the Devil’s recent additions, a testament to the negotiating prowess of general manager Lou Lamoriello. Giving up only later-round draft picks, Lamoriello managed to add depth offensive depth by trading for Andrei Loktionov from the Kings, Matt D’Agostini from the Blues, and former Devils draft pick Steve Sullivan from the Coyotes. Loktionov has performed the best, scoring five goals since joining the Devils, though the others have made contributions as well. D’Agostini adds great speed that improves New Jersey’s forecheck and breakaway potential, and Sullivan, added on trade deadline day, got the Devils on the board against Buffalo with a powerplay goal in only his 2nd game in his 2nd stint in the red and black.
One question remains for the Devils: until Ilya Kovalchuk can get healthy, what does the team need to do to avoid missing the postseason for only the 2nd time in the last 16 years? The answer lies with Coach Pete DeBoer, who needs to find a way to keep the team positive after losing seven in a row. Jersey has had flashes of brilliance of times, but the team’s inability to get the puck in the net has doomed them to losses in what could have been impressive wins. The Devils can’t afford to get down on themselves, not when they are doing so well on shots and possession. The only hope for New Jersey is that they find a way to get pucks in the back of the net. If they can have one good game where they open up their 5-on-5 scoring and play the New Jersey defense that they’re capable of, they’ll be right back in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
If not, the Devils will have to use all of what will be a long summer to find out what went wrong.
Nate Schiller is a New Jersey Devils beat reporter for WFUV Sports.