I said this was a must-win. The New Jersey Devils clearly didn't do that; they lost 4-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Flyers now have a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Devils.
I made a point out of how Jamie Langenbrunner needed to step up tonight - not just as a player, but as a leader. His night ended with 2 shots blocked, 4 missed the net, and a holding call during a third period penalty kill that led to the fourth goal of the night for Philadelphia. The goal was credited to Jeff Carter, I thought it was by Danny Briere, but that's beside the point. Langenbrunner the player was invisible at best and harmful to his team at worst. What about as a leader? Arguably even worse than that.
The Devils followed up a good first period with a poor second period and an arguably worse third. Whereas the Devils came out with vigor in the first, the team suddenly forgot how to possess the puck over the blueline for much of the second - getting pinned back repeatedly. The Devils just unraveled as time went on in terms of shooting, passing, defending, discipline, and just general energy. Langenbrunner said the team had to be more desperate tonight, per this post by Tom Gulitti. Not even close. No leadership from him or anyone for that matter.
Frankly, I'm only specifically calling out Langenbrunner here since he is the team captain. To be honest, the whole team did a great job in losing this game.
The boxscore pundits will look at this game in many ways - the refs called too many penalties, Martin Brodeur must have been bad while Brian Boucher must have been good based on save percentage alone, the Devils blew chances to win, the Flyers made more of their chances, and so on and so forth. Some will be right. Some will be wrong. They don't matter because the reality will be the same. The Devils lost Game 4. They lost it decisively. They lost it definitively. They are on the brink of elimination and no Devils fan who saw Game 3 or Game 4 could be honest with themselves and say that this was undeserved.
Martin Brodeur told Gulitti that tonight's game will "say a lot about our team." Unfortunately, it says that you can't rise above the Philadelphia Flyers. It sucks. I hate typing that. But results matter. The Devils didn't get the job done. Here's a link to the official recap at NHL.com if you'd like a quicker take. It even has links to all the stats from the game. Please read on if you'd like to read some more about this loss. I can't guarantee you'll like what you'll read.Accuse me of making an assumption, but I'm assuming that pretty much all Devils fans on some level are angry, sickened, crushed, enraged, frustrated, depressed, and disappointed over this loss. I think that's perfectly fine and normal to feel after witnessing this wreck of a performance. That's why most of you reading this will have some issue with what I'm about to type as a recap.
THINGS YOU DON'T NECESSARILY WANT TO READ BUT HERE THEY ARE
First and foremost, do not put this game on the referees. This is a fool's game, in my opinion. Yes, the referees called a lot of penalties tonight. They called a lot of penalties in Games 2 and 3. These games have different referees assigned. While I'm sure you're upset - justifiably or otherwise - over some of the calls made, if the Devils keep getting whistled for infractions from different refs in each game, then I don't see how the problem can't be on the Devils. More distressingly, you'll find from Games 3 and 4 that the Devils have taken a lot of these calls later in the game - it means the players didn't pick up on the fact that the refs' eyes were constantly on the look out for penalties. That's on New Jersey.
Moreover, suppose the opposite occurs and the refs didn't call too many penalties. I'm almost certain people would complain about how Flyer X got away with murder on Devil Y (e.g. Honorless Captain Mike Richards laying on top of Zach Parise after a whistle and punching him in the head in Game 2) or how Devil Z should have been whistled for taking down Flyer Q (e.g. what every fan in the Wachovia Center felt every time a Flyer
dived fell down tonight) and so forth. It's a silly argument. Especially in a game where both teams ended up with 8 power plays each. The Devils have been shorthanded 23 times, second most in the playoffs behind Philadelphia, who has been down 24 times. That says the Devils, a normally exceptional team when it comes to discipline (only shorthanded 239 times in 09-10 season, lowest in league), not only had their chances to really put the screws to Philly, but they've been excessively bad with their own infractions.
All of these penalties really mean that it comes down to special teams and as great as the lone power play goal scored by Ilya Kovalchuk - during a 5-on-3 - in addition to the first three power plays of the game, the Devils never took full advantage of those extra-man opportunities. Likewise, while the penalty kill has shined against Philadelphia on some occasions, they got beat too many times - twice by Jeff Carter tonight - whether or not they could do something about it is an entirely different question; but the root problem of taking calls to begin with wasn't addressed. And the players' lack of learning hurt New Jersey again tonight in Game 4.
Second and nearly foremost, all of the blame isn't on the coaching staff. Note that I didn't say that none of the blame is on the coaching staff. Jacques Lemaire and his staff didn't make the right tactical adjustments going forward. It's clear they didn't get the team fired up in either intermission. However, I must remind you all that Lemaire, Mario Tremblay, Scott Stevens, and Tommy Albelin aren't on the ice. They aren't the ones executing plays, understanding where they are on the ice, or even skating out there. It's easy to blame and fire the coaches, but the players are the ones to perform. It's the player's character that comes out in big situations and quite frankly, it's nothing good given tonight's loss.
On a night where the Devils didn't perform, you cannot just throw up your hands and say "It's Lemaire! Change Lemaire and the problems will go away."
One additional point, before you say, "If Scott Stevens were still playing..." keep in mind that Stevens was on the trip. He even gave David Clarkson a special pep talk prior to tonight. I'm sure he hasn't been with the team just to quietly observe, but I'm just guessing. Given Clarkson's night, I think it's clear how much of an effect that had. Don't get me wrong, I love Scott Stevens. He is a Devils legend, one of the best defensemen of all time, and one of the best leaders. But he's not magical. He cannot say the magic phrase that gets a player to suddenly become a superhero on the ice. He'll try and he has been; but let's not mythologize Stevens as some kind of guru who can do what the players can only do for themselves.
Third, the Devils once again lost the momentum, and the game, in the second period. Now this is just obscene at this juncture. The Devils have a good first period, they even score on a 5-on-3 power play, and excepting the final two minutes, the Devils have looked good. Yet, the Flyers come roaring out of the gate in the second period and the struggles begin. The constant "dump and change" fed the Flyers for more attacks. The Devils, out of desperation - and not the kind Langenbrunner was hoping for - attempted clearances and passes that the Flyers picked off with ease. Some serious heads up plays by the defense and Martin Brodeur prevented the Flyers from blowing out the Devils right then and there. Yet, eventually, the Flyers were able to get that one great shot to beat Brodeur. Carter got one in the circle on a power play; and then later during a four-on-four (Aside: which should have been a Devils power play except Travis Zajac apparently cross-checked someone at the beginning, so thanks Zajac) - it was Danny Briere with a laser to the corner to make it 2-1.
How the Devils were only outshot 12-8, I'm not certain. But it took nearly half the period until the Devils got a shot on net. It took even longer before the Devils could even keep the puck in the Flyers' half for some length of time. Yes, half, not zone, but just their half.
Yes, the game was winnable after then and how the Devils just fell apart was horrible. Yet, the second period was where the game was lost. The Flyers got the crowd roaring and crowing, they dominated the run of play during even strength, and they broke through with the lead. In retrospect, it crushed the Devils' confidence. Should you want one part of the game to point at, the correct answer, from what I saw, would be the second period "performance" by the Devils.
Fourth, Brian Boucher continues to not be tested My one big beef with the usage of statistics have to do with the reliance on save percentage for how well a goaltender plays. It doesn't take into account the types of shots, whether it was a good chance or not, and so forth. Brian Boucher was named the second star of the game for his performance of making 27 shots out of 28. Boucher played well. He moved well within his crease. But he wasn't that tested since a significant number of those saves he made were shots right at his chest or were easily stopped. Outside of the first, it's been what we've seen in Games 1 and 3; Boucher isn't getting worked over.
Do not let the shot totals fool you. In fact, take a closer look and you'll react with a word: "Oy." (A second word would be "vey.") The Devils put 31 shots on net, but were blocked 25 times and missed the net 18 times. More shooting attempts that didn't get on net compared to how many that did. Maybe the scorer was generous, but cease the complaints about how the Devils have all this offense on paper, how it's not resulting. You want a reason, there it is. I'm aware that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take, but putting only 42% of shooting attempts on net isn't going to lead to many goals either. That's exacerbated when the Devils are shooting right at Boucher. Not shooting low and hard enough to force rebounds. Not trying to get him moving too much. Not trying to pick corners (well, maybe those 18 misses were). Quite frankly, any goalie in the league could have put in a similar performance tonight with the way the Devils were shooting.
Once again, that falls on the players' execution. Boucher and the Flyers did well to prevent New Jersey from rolling through the zone and dictate play. This leads me to:
Fifth, let's be fair, the Flyers played well. They did. They had a better understanding of what was going on with the game, even as they continued to take stupid, avoidable penalties. They showed great resiliency when something didn't go their way in the game, not letting an early deficit get to them. The Flyers sensed that the Devils weren't as intense in the second period, decided to take the game right to them, and never looked back. Brian Boucher isn't forced to be great, the defense has been strong, their penalty killing has been largely successful; and their offense has forced errors and mind-boggling great saves from Martin Brodeur - and still finding ways to beat them.
I know, wasn't this the team that barely made the playoffs? Well, in it, they're playing as well as they need to be. They've earned their series lead. They've deserved it. I hate typing that. Especially about a rival. Especially about a rival with the type of garbage they pull in games - if it's not illegal moves, it's dives; if it's not diving, it's complaints to the refs for calls; if it's not complaining, it's abusing Devils from behind, etc. This series has proven their reputation.
But it's the truth. They have been the better team.
Sixth, do not put this game on one Devil. Because cases can be made for most of them contributing to the team's downfall tonight. Here are 5 I'm sure some people will bring up:
1) Ilya Kovalchuk. Honestly, his night wasn't so bad. One of the few Devils to fire, fire, and fire away; he's shooting was inefficient - 6 shots on net, 7 blocked, 3 missed - but he did score the one goal in the game and he at least was trying to do something. I'm sure some may say he was trying to do too much and ended up with little accomplished. I'm sure some will say this will cause him to not be re-signed as if that was the point. I'm sure some may suggest the trade backfired (where is Atlanta again?). Kovalchuk could have shot better tonight, but at least he got the message from Game 3 to attempt more.
2) Martin Brodeur. The goal, the third of the game for Philadelphia, given up to The Actor, Dan Carcillo was soft. I'm loathe to criticize the guy who gave the Devils a chance to win Game 3 and absolutely robbed the Flyers in their early second period salvos of offensive supremacy. But it was soft. The other 3 goals allowed were at least perfectly placed shots on two of them and one rebound. I'm sure some moron will claim Brodeur didn't do enough or that he lost the series. No. That only excuses the other players on this team and ignores all of the other important stops he made tonight. Not unlike Game 3, he never got the goal support those saves deserved.
3) Jamie Langenbrunner. I've made my case for him before the jump. But he's not the only man on the team with a heart or a mouth. Others could have stepped up.
4) Martin Skoula. Honestly, he was on the ice for only one goal against, the first Jeff Cater goal. I'm not sure what you would have wanted Skoula to do on that shot. Drop down so Carter can skate around him? Rush at him and let him make an easy pass to a wide open Flyer during their PP? He didn't lose the game just because he was there
5) David Clarkson didn't even get a shot on net - only 3 missed and was often being within chaos instead of causing it. Sure, the scorer gave him 4 hits, but he wasn't raising too much hell out there. He was effectively quieted by the Flyers. Still, he wasn't the only player who could be big that didn't do much.
And so forth. The team as a whole made gaffes at one point or another, but most of all they didn't rise up to play well together. The general level of intensity from them was low. Therefore, all four lines didn't have the hustle the Flyers had. All three defensive pairings were more frantic compared to the more composed Flyers defense. They were playing as if Martin Brodeur had to be near-perfect, and that's always a dangerous game plan.
This was a team loss. The players collectively failed on a night where they could have turned everything around.
Seventh, it is what it is - accept it. This was a bad match-up from the beginning. I didn't want the Devils to play the Flyers and unfortunately the reasons for that have held up. The Flyers have been motivated by their regular season success and have carried on play from then on. While I initially thought about it first, not tanking the final game of the season remains the right call. The Devils didn't tank for Mario Lemieux in 1984. They didn't tank in other seasons where they could have had something to gain. They weren't going to tank then. Tanking is not in Lou's vocabulary and it damn well never should be.
Were we to believe this was a team set for a deep playoff run, then we need to accept that the match-ups are going to suck sometimes. It is totally unrealistic to think it'd be easy all the way through. The Devils were able to beat Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and numerous other playoff-caliber teams; we have witnessed several times how well they could have played. They played really well going into the playoffs. So to sit there and say, "Hey, the Devils should have lost to Buffalo because they can't beat Philly" shows a lack of confidence and no real respectability.
The Devils definitely could hang with Philly in a playoff series - even beat them - had they play well as they have been. There was no reason to believe that the Devils playing their way and their kind of hockey meant that there was anyone who could just decisively defeat them over and over.
Yet, that is what precisely happened. The could not repeat or come close to repeating any of those performances in this series so far. The Devils merely responded. The one game where the Devils attempted to do things their way was the one they won. In Game 3 and Game 4, that initiative only lasted for the first period. Again, the Devils only responded to Philadelphia in the second and third periods and that's where the Flyers earned their success. Who is to say this couldn't have happened against Boston or Montreal?
They drew Philadelphia and for one reason or another, did not prepare or respond to their game plan appropriately. They did not play well enough. Change the opponent but not the performance and you'd likely get the same results. It is what it is, it sucks, it hurts, it's hard, but it happened. Accept it.
It's miracle time for New Jersey, given the series. I'm aware of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, but that requires three straight wins. The Devils haven't even scored three straight goals all series. I apologize for not believing right away.
Thanks for reading and please actually read the whole recap. Maybe I am typing all of this out for my own sake, but I do hope my points are at least conveyed. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Below are the highlights from tonight's game.