Last year, a trip to Florida pretty much killed any feint hopes of the New Jersey Devils making the playoffs. In the last 48 hours, the Devils' playoff hopes just got powerbombed through a table onto a concrete floor by two straight losses to Florida and the Tampa Bay Lightning, tonight's opponents. Against the former, the Devils got a lead and saw it fade away, largely driven by turnovers and simple errors. That was disgraceful. Tonight, the Devils didn't even get a lead - or a goal. They lost 0-3. This was pathetic.
It wasn't an entire failure. Martin Brodeur honestly had a strong game. He did better than I thought against a team that featured Steve Stamkos, one of the most frightening shooters in the league. Brodeur stopped Stamkos four times. He stopped J.T. Brown a penalty shot. He had to make plenty of tough stops. The goals against weren't soft. He even had a little luck as he was beaten twice only to be saved by the post. But a goalie can only keep their team in the game at best. They cannot win it since they do not score goals. Sadly, the Devils would have needed him to do that since the eighteen guys in front of him did not do so.
Let me run it down. In addition to being out-scored 0-3, they were out-shot 23-32, out-shot in each period, out-attempted 41-47, and out-attempted at evens 37-38 (remember, the Devils were losing most of this game so being around even is bad). The Devils were absolutely pitiful on the power play. I'm going to answer Jerry's question from earlier today: they were paper kittens tonight. The Devils went on long stretches without a shot on net, despite having opportunities to shoot. The Devils' shot leader was Michael Ryder, who honestly did come close to snapping his arctic-cold streak - only to be denied by Ben Bishop's left right. When Ryder is the leader in this regard, you know the offense stunk. Throw in how Tampa Bay just kept flying through the neutral zone, created in part by their defense making plays. Simply: This was not a good game for the Devils' skaters.
So much frustration comes from this game. From little things like not being in sync to take offsides to medium things like making drop passes or one too many passes instead of firing directly on Ben Bishop to big things like getting the puck knocked away on offense to concede attacks to Tampa Bay or guys losing their coverage. Throw in some questionable calls and the lack of scoring and it's just an infuriating night. Especially since the Devils cannot afford these types of games. They can't just hustle and expect things to happen. They can't afford these bad performances against anyone with just over four weeks remaining in the season.
I'm not going to go as far as some fans as to say the season's over. I can sympathize with the feeling because after a game like this, I don't really have a lot of confidence.
The Opposition Opinion: Clark J Brooks has a positive recap at Raw Charge. As he should since his favorite team won and decisively.
The Game Highlights: If you're a Tampa Bay fan, then these are highlights. If you're not, then these are lowlights. The video is from NHL.com anyway:
Wherein I Anger You By Not Being Mad at Every Skater: There were some players that weren't as bad that some fans may feel. First, the pairing of Bryce Salvador & Anton Volchenkov wasn't awful. Their competition wasn't always soft. Just that not a lot happened when they were out there. For two defensive-minded defensemen, that's actually good. They were on the ice for B.J. Crombeen's deflection goal that ended up being enough to win the game. But that's a deflection. That just happens. It wasn't like they lost their coverage or just flailed out there. As much as neither of these guys brought little offense, remember: they have never brought in much offense anyway. There's plenty of blame to assign, but I don't think these two were really that bad.
I liked what I saw out of Dainius Zubrus. He definitely pushed hard tonight. He had three shots. It's arguable whether he should have had a goal in the first period, though I can't say I'm irate the refs ruled against it due to interference. He was playing well enough to be reunited with Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr. I thought they looked OK but they really needed to generate more shots than just territorial play. But for a guy who's been struggling somewhat recently, I was heartened to see him do OK for a change. I wished he didn't over-pass on a 2-on-1 with Josefson in the first period, but so it goes.
I can't really say much about the fourths since they played so little. They weren't bad, they weren't good, they were just there. That's OK for a fourth line. Jacob Josefson did get a shot, which was nice to see.
Mark Fayne didn't cough up the puck. But seriously, the Andy Greene and Mark Fayne pairing was decent. That's not necessarily notable since they've been so good. There's that. I'm admittedly struggling to think of other positives from skaters.
Wherein I Advise You to Raise A Little Ire for These Skaters: Marek Zidlicky didn't take a bad penalty tonight, but he definitely played a clueless game. The puck is commonly on his stick as he brings the puck out and likes to be involved on offense from the back. This is fine when he's making good passes and decisions. Tonight, he did not. He helped undercut the offense. His "high point" in this regard was getting the puck in the slot in the third period when the Devils were down 2-0 and then deciding to pass the puck to Ryder at a sharp angle. Defensively, he was himself. His fall on the blueline helped Kostka jump up in a 4-on-4 situation and ultimately score. He was poor one-on-one and he got beat in general. Awful night from #2.
Jon Merrill was messy out there. He conceded a penalty shot to J.T. Brown. He got worked over a lot by Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat, and Valterri Filppula. He made bad decisions to go up for hits or backing off when unnecessary. Essentially, he played like Eric Gelinas did last week against Carolina. Gelinas was benched for that performance. I wonder what will happen to Merrill for this one. I can't say I'm opposed to a night off or two for him.
Damien Brunner, what in the world happened? How come he returned to his November form? He wasn't on the ice for a single shot on ice at evens. He was abysmal on the power play, with the lone positive being how he didn't get called for a penalty when "defending" on the second power play the team had tonight. Yes, he had a new winger in Ryane Clowe - who, in fact, did play tonight - but he's been playing with Patrik Elias for quite sometime. I couldn't tell you why he was such a negative player tonight, just that he was.
Speaking of Elias, he had a point streak broken tonight. He took one shot on net, he was notably slow in backchecking in the game-breaking 3-on-2 that Nate Thompson scored on, and whatever he was present for that was positive, there was a negative event. Elias didn't make a hideous turnover tonight, but he wasn't all that good. That's a problem considering he's one of New Jersey's most important forwards.
Normally, I praise the work of Jaromir Jagr. Tonight, he wasn't the strong winger the team needed. His decisions didn't always work out right. His approach to defense helped cost the team a goal. In a 4-on-4 situation, with Marek Zidlicky down, he just didn't keep skating hard to get back. He may have been in front of Ondrej Palat but his lack of movement allowed Michael Kostka to go down low and be totally open. Palat got him the puck, Kostka had Brodeur at his mercy, and it was 0-2. This would be forgiveable if Jagr brought a lot of offense with him. Two shots and being on the ice for only four at evens means he didn't.
Now that I think about it, what did Tuomo Ruutu and Ryane Clowe do tonight? Ryder at least came close to scoring, which is a tiny step forward from being just present.
Ultimately, you see the larger theme: several Devils had nondiscript and/or bad games tonight. This may be OK if it's from players who play limited minutes, but when it's coming from guys who are relied on to make things happen, it rarely ends well.
Don't Burn the Power Play Tape: Everyone involved needs to sit down and watch it closely at least twice. First, to feel shame for their utter failure. Second, to identify something that's wrong so they can try to fix it. Before you suggest it, no, Eric Gelinas isn't the answer. He's got a great shot but his idea of leading a breakout is trying to carry it in for a dump-in. But at this point, I don't really care beyond getting Brunner far, far away from the point and the players to carry out some kind of plan .
Credit: The Tampa Bay defensemen were very good. As much as I was irritated by it, I have to admit that Victor Hedman and Sami Salo had an awesome time denying the Devils from doing what they needed. Michael Kostka definitely was productive. His shot was deflected in for the first goal and he finished the second himself. Tampa Bay's depth definitely made noise. Brown had four shots on net in 8:54, got a penalty shot, and set up Thompson's one-touch goal that killed any hopes in the game. He, Tom Pyatt, and Teddy Purcell were very good in possession in limited action, which helped keep the lead safe for the Lightning. Tyler Johnson and Filppula looked good too, and Stamkos was, well, himself. As great as the Devils kept their best player off the scoresheet, the other guys on Tampa Bay did their jobs well. That they got that kind of help regularly is a reason why they're in the playoffs right now.
Oh, and Ben Bishop was quite good. The Devils didn't test him enough, but he made the stops he had to make. Well done for him and the skaters who actually gave him something to work with. Apologies for the Bolts fans for mostly focusing on the Devils' failure. The Lightning did make the Devils suffer; after all, Brodeur had to play well and even he got beaten three times.
Eight: After this game, the Devils were shut out on the scoreboard eight times this season.
Monday: A poll. I think you'll be interested in it. That is all.
Your Take: I'm sure you all have your feelings about this loss. You've read my observations, so now I want yours. What really went wrong? Can it be fixed? Will there be better times ahead? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thanks to those who followed along in the gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.