Less than a week ago, the Devils were flying at fifteen games over .500, 9-1-1 since the All-Star break and seemingly in a solid playoff position. However, the Devils have clearly hit a rough patch now after a tough-luck loss to Vancouver, a disgraceful performance against Tampa Bay and a 2-0 loss last night that saw more hits than shots on goal. With road games at Boston and suddenly resurgent Washington later this week before returning to the tri-state area for rivalry week it won’t get any easier, and visions of the six-game losing streak that was the beginning of the end for Brent Sutter here in 2009 are dancing through my head.
Make no mistake about it, it would still take a monumental collapse for the Devils to miss the playoffs considering they need Ottawa (without goalie Craig Anderson) and three Southeast teams to pass them before falling into ninth. Or two Southeast teams and Toronto, who ‘improved’ their defense at the deadline by adding ex-Devil Mark Fraser – insert chuckle here. That said, is there any Devil fan that really wants to fall all the way to eighth and have to play the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist in the first round again, a goaltender who they clearly have a complex against?
You need look no further than last night for proof, when the Devils continually threw the puck into traffic, and even pros like Patrik Elias were passing up easy shots out of intimidation. Not only do our shooters squeeze their sticks a little tighter, but Martin Brodeur also seems to press these days against Lundqvist. Aside from his brilliant 1-0 shutout at the Garden last month, Brodeur seems to give up one soft goal a game against the Rangers, which is usually enough to lose against Lundqvist and his .950 save percentage against us.
For a rare time though, last night wasn’t entirely about Lundqvist – though he did set a record by beginning his career with seven straight thirty-win seasons – as a Ranger defense that’s getting more impressive by the game allowed a mere thirteen shots to the Devils for the entire night. While offensively it appeared as if the Rangers lost interest in trying to score after Carl Hagelin‘s stuff-in goal at 16:59 that Brodeur somehow didn’t see despite the play going right in front of him, defensively they continue to astound the league. Without a game-changer like Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom or even a superb puck-mover like the Pens’ Kris Letang, the Rangers’ defense just continues to do the job and shut teams down.
Perhaps the only bright spot for the Devils last night was their own defense, which allowed a mere fourteen shots of their own, despite chasing the game the last two periods. Although Lundqvist astoundingly accused ‘us’ of not trying to score after the game despite being behind for two periods, fact is the Devils’ defense has done very well the last three games – allowing just 16, 16 and 14 shots respectively. Yet, despite only allowing 46 shots on net total in the three games, the Devils have managed to lose all three…go figure.
However, there was more to talk about from the chippiness of last night’s game than the actual action (or lack thereof) otherwise. Particularly in the second period, which centered primarily around the Devils’ David Clarkson and the Rangers’ repeated attempts to goad him into losing his mind, which were ultimately successful – a page out of the Sean Avery playbook. Initially however, Clarkson was incensed over a Brandon Dubinsky high hit on Zach Parise and somehow wound up taking a ten-minute misconduct penalty early in the period. Clarkson was right in front of the Devils’ bench when he got teed up and literally everyone from Pete DeBoer to normally stone-faced assistant Adam Oates and even Larry Robinson went nuts. Parise went nuts too, leading me to believe that what Clarkson said or did didn’t really merit such a harsh penalty. Not when you have calm, level-headed guys losing their mind on the bench.
After Clarkson served his penalty, the Rangers intensified their attempts to bait him, with Mike Rupp surreptitously using his stick to try to trip Clarkson at the faceoff circle. Clarkson responded in kind and slashed Rupp, earning both matching minors. Then soon after getting out of the box, Clarkson had finally had enough, taking a run at Dubinsky by leaping in the air to try to clock him before dropping the gloves, earning a minor penalty along with the five-minute major. So in a twenty-minute period, Clarkson somehow managed to earn nineteen minutes of penalties.
While the Devils were incensed about the Rangers’ baiting tactics and the officials’ unwillingness (for weeks) to call a penalty on the opposition, John Tortorella in turn was annoyed that he couldn’t pull Marian Gaborik off the ice when the officials were ready to drop the puck in the first period after the Devils put enforcer Eric Boulton on – soon after Parise had gotten hit. Then the Rangers thought an otherwise brilliant stop by Anton Volchenkov in the second period should have been a penalty shot despite the fact that Volchenkov never touched the puck with his hands, and as much as anything had it shot into him as he was falling down to try to make a save.
I like Torts but cry me a river, buddy. I guess you don’t believe in ‘safe is death’ anymore, considering the Rangers in the third period didn’t make much of an attempt to score on the power play Clarkson gave them. Unlike the Devils though (when they got swamped by the Rangers up 1-0 in the third period at MSG and only got saved by Brodeur), the Rangers can play a prevent offense and get away with it, because their defense and goaltending is that good. Especially considering how inept the Devils were on offense. In a fitting end, the puck skipped past new acquisition Marek Zidlicky late and Ryan Callahan cashed in the empty-netter to seal a 2-0 win.
Though the season series is now at 2-2, clearly the psychological edge is still in the Rangers’ corner, considering Lundqvist has given up a grand total of two goals in his three starts against us (indiciative of his entire career against us) and they’re coasting toward the division title and top seed in the East. Despite playing the Rangers in a rematch next week at the Rock, the Devils can’t worry about that right now – they need to focus on their own game, with three more to play until the next game against their biggest rival.