How many times in a season can a team pull the rug out from under their fans? That is a question these New Jersey Devils are now pushing the limits of. With another shootout loss on Tuesday, this time to the awful Buffalo Sabres, it got me thinking about the games that bother me most from this season; the ones were I look back and shake my head at what could have been. This particular season is littered with games like that for this team, between blown leads, losses to bottom feeders, and other assorted missed opportunities. Your mileage may vary, but when I look back, these are the games that stand out most to me.
The seven-game winless streak to start the season drove people crazy as a whole, but this game stands out among the rest as a blown opportunity. The Devils were firmly in control of a game against a bad team and let it slip away. Heading into the third the team was up 3-0 on the scoreboard and pretty much controlling play as well. The lead vanished in a hurry, though, as the defense and Marty decided to take some time off in the third period. The Oilers would tie the game on three consecutive shots and then take the lead on a heinous defensive breakdown that left Taylor Hall alone on the doorstep. A lucky bounce would allow the Devils to tie it, but they'd end up falling in the shootout in a game they should have comfortably cruised out of with a regulation victory.
This game fell in among the long line of goaltending second-guesses this season. Trying to wriggle free of a season-opening losing streak, Marty got the nod, and he sunk the Devils on this night. It was a night where they kicked the Senators up and down the ice (though score effects were at least some factor). He gave up two bad goals on the first two shots of the game, and when the Devils were mounting a comeback in the third and had made it 3-2, he gave up one more howler to make it 4-2 seal the team's fate.
I lumped these together because it was one of many 'two-steps-back-after-two-steps-forward' sequences the Devils have subjected everyone to this season. They were coming off a successful California road trip and a stretch where they took 3 of 4 from top teams in the league. Then they came home and couldn't hack it against mediocre opponents. The Winnipeg game was a game where the Devils dominated territorially but just wouldn't stop firing pucks into shin pads. A couple got through Brodeur and the Devils just couldn't find the handle on offense, despite spending eons in the Jets' end and fell 2-1. They followed that up by digging a huge hole against Carolina that they could not climb out of. That was another questionable Marty start, but the defense was complicit, and they just couldn't quite climb out of a 4-1 hole. They would take the following two against Carolina again and Buffalo, but taking only half of the possible points in a week where you should be able to bank 5 or 6 is the story of the Devils' season.
These two rank pretty high on the 2013-14 Devils Pain-O-Meter. Both were games that the Devils probably should have emerged victorious from, but instead got a combined 1 point. The first was a game they absolutely dominated. They had Montreal hemmed in most of the night and only allowed 17 shots, but Price stood on his head and they ultimately got Leaf'd and fell 3-2. The second was a painful shootout loss, in which the Devils took a late lead in a hard-fought game off a P.K. Subban turnover, but the Canadiens equalized off a deflected shot from the point on a play started by a Subban slew-foot on Elias. They fell in the shootout, naturally, and got only one of what should/could have been two.
This one hurts even more now, considering the current standings predicament with the Jackets. When you think of squandered opportunities, this is the game that might stand out among all others. A blown 3-1 lead, bad bounces, the wrong goalie between the pipes, this one had it all. My thoughts after the game were "UUUUUUUUUGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH" and I think that still holds up.
This was a game the Devils should win. They had been playing decent hockey over the past several weeks taking points in 7 of 9 (7 of 7 against non-Chicago teams), and they came in looking for a win against the league's worst team after coming off a loss to the league's best at the time. They just couldn't hack it. They could only muster 22 shots against an almost historically bad team that allows 34 a game and they could only find the back of the net on a 5-on-3 power play. They possessed it well, but you should be able to do better than firing into shin pads when you are playing a terrible team. Losing to Buffalo in regulation means you get exactly what you deserve when you finish 2 or 3 points out of the playoffs at season's end.
Hard to forget this one. The Devils were going along pretty well in January, and it was starting to look like the playoffs were a real possibility. A win in this game would have put them in a tie for second in the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand. Their playoff odds sat at about 72% at the time, per SportsClubStats. They went up 3-1 on some pretty plays in a very good first 16 minutes. But then the goaltending, and subsequently the defense, came completely unglued as the Devils would get hammered en route to a 7-3 loss on the national stage. A fun spectacle, but a disaster on the ice, especially considering how good they looked out of the gate. It dealt a big blow in the standings, and marked a sort of symbolic end to the Brodeur era for me. It was a real bummer.
These were two of the stretch of games in which the Devils yielded a tying goal with the opposition net empty on three consecutive nights. They were able to pull the first game against Dallas out of the fire, but they'd fall in the next two in especially painful fashion. The first was a deflection off a Devil's stick that led to a wide open net for the tie and the second was a deflection off an opponent stick that got through traffic. The Colorado loss was especially excruciating, in that the Devils hit three posts and had a puck die on the goal line to keep them from extending their lead. Some games you have no one to blame but yourself, but the one to the Avalanche was just a soul-crusher that the Devils really didn't deserve.
This game. This is the one. No game dealt a bigger blow to the Devils' playoff hopes this season. It was a game they had to have, it was a game they should have had, and it was a game they had a 3-1 lead in. The Devils coughed up pucks on D, though, and Cory Schneider picked a bad time to be substandard and the Devils turned that 3-1 lead into a 4-3 deficit and eventually a 5-3 loss with an empty-netter. The Devils saw their playoff odds dip 17% in one night, the most of any night throughout the entire season. They went from 59% playoff odds to 42% and did it against a bad team on the second half of a back to back. With a tough stretch of schedule on the horizon, it was a game they had to have and they just let it get away. Many expletives were uttered.
Return of the Shootout Woes
The past week's events are fresh in our minds, but they are just more examples of just not quite doing enough. Shootout losses against Phoenix, the Islanders, and Buffalo have basically smothered what was left of the Devils playoff hopes (though they are still somehow hanging on the periphery). The Phoenix loss hurt, but they are another desperate team so it was manageable. Not taking care of teams with nothing to play for like the Isles and the Sabres is just inexcusable down the stretch when you're fighting for your playoff lives. Even the Islanders are kind of playing decently of late. The Sabres loss was just a bad dream playing out in slow motion. The Devils couldn't extend a lead despite playing well. Then they coughed up said lead in a matter of minutes. They tied it up, though, to make sure they could later crush everyone's hopes again. Then round after round of the shootout passed with the Devils never shutting the door. Five different Devils had the puck on their stick with a chance to put the game away and exercise their shootout demons and none of them could make it happen.
It's crazy to think how many times this team has let games get away or dropped games they should win with an opportunity to get on a roll. Yes, they've pulled a few out of their rears as well (think the Boston Power Play Party back in October and Schneider's robbery of the Kings in November), but there are just so many points in this season where they just let standings points slip away. Maybe that's the mark of a bad team, maybe it's a team that's not getting the bounces, or maybe it's a team who should have given a goaltender who shall remain nameless about 15 less starts. Probably some fraction of all three.
Part of me still can't shake the feel that if you play this season 100 times, this Devils team is a playoff team more often than not, which frustrates me greatly. That's not how it works, though. You get one chance, and if you screw it up, well sorry, thanks for playing. A better team can cover for letting some games get away the way the Devils have. When it comes down to it, they have just not been good enough in the games put in front of them. Too many posts hit, to many soft goals allowed, and too many brain farts on defense that ended up in the back of the net. Yes, the Devils have left a mountain of points on the table in the shootout, but a lot of the games in which they did didn't have to get to that point. With the Devils now on playoff life support, it's hard not to reflect and think of what could have been.
So what are your thoughts? Lets commiserate. What games bother you most from this season? Is there a particular stretch you are most upset by, looking back? A particular player that has been most disappointing or perhaps a coaching decision you've most hated? Let it all out for some catharsis in the comments below.