If you go by the old adage of assessing your team in twenty-game blocks, just after twenty games one overriding characteristic of the 2015-16 Devils has already come to the forefront – their ability to play up and inability to avoid playing down to opponents. For every win (in this case two) over Chicago, Montreal and the Rangers you have two losses to Columbus, losses in Calgary and Edmonton and the disgraceful performances this week against the Avs and Flyers. In many ways it’s more annoying than beating the teams you’re supposed to beat and just being overwhelmed talentwise by the better teams of the league. You get teased thinking this Devil team is ready to take a step into being a contender then WHAM! reality smacks you in the face.
Not only do the Devils play down to their competition but lately they have been horrendous at the Rock, winning just five of thirteen home games this year (and three of them in OT/SO games). With me in the building their record’s even worse with just two wins in the eight games I’ve been to so far, including the sleepwalk against the Avs on Tuesday and another too little, too late performance against the Flyers tonight. Yes, they got a point in a 4-3 OT loss. Sure, they got three points in the back to back if you want to look at the glass half full although their 5-1 win at Carolina was the exception this season, not the norm. Still when you’re playing Colorado, Carolina and the Flyers – three non-playoff teams – coming off an emotional three points out of four home-and-home with the Canadiens I’m sorry, three points out of six just isn’t going to cut it. You can’t count on always rising to the occasion and beating the better teams, if you’re going to grow as a team and have a shot at playing meaningful games in March you have to beat teams that are on or below your level.
I thought Tuesday’s game against the Avs was bad but tonight trumped that tenfold. It’s one thing to be outcompeted by some podunk out of conference team that hasn’t been a rival in a decade and a half, it’s another to just be invisible and let yourself get pummeled by the rival Flyers for forty minutes on your home ice. Even worse, players who are supposed to be leaders and above this like Andy Greene and Patrik Elias looked like they didn’t want to be bothered with the game. Greene in particular had the worst game I’ve seen from him since he was a fringe guy under Brent Sutter seven years ago, with a pair of bad penalties, multiple horrendous turnovers, and for the coup de grace misplaying the two-on-one in OT that eventually ended the game. I love Patty, but when you reach for a puck one-handed and let it get by you well I gotta get on you too. Kyle Palmeri’s second-period penalty was so egregious he earned himself a benching for the rest of the period (and then came back a house a fire and scored on his first shift in the third). Honestly the only players in the first two periods I felt were competing were the fringe forwards, guys like Stefan Matteau and Tyler Kennedy.
There’s no excuse really for this team’s continued failure to get up for teams behind them in the standings, this team just flat out isn’t good enough to win games by rote like say, the 2000-01 Devils did (and even they paid for turning it on and off in the end). Nor are they good enough to overcome coaching mistakes like John Hynes putting out the fourth line with our top defensive pairing to open the game. Predictably the fourth line was pinned in their own end for like the first eighty seconds of the game and you essentially wasted a Greene-Adam Larsson shift in the process. In fact that shift set the tone early and the Flyers were camped in our own end for the first 3-4 minutes of the game. Miraculously not only did they fail to score but Flyers goalie Michael Neuvirth gave us a gift when Matteau’s side-net floater somehow got past Neuvirth and gave the Devils an undeserved lead. I knew that wouldn’t last with the Devils playing the way they were and the PK failed both times that Greene was in the box, with John Moore being a poor stand-in – though it was Larsson who probably misplayed goal #1 more. Admittedly, I’m off the Moore bandwagon now after his horrendous game tonight, this staff continues to treat him as the #3 defenseman when the shot totals with him on the ice suggest he should be more the #5 or #6 defenseman, depending on whether Eric Gelinas is in the lineup or not.
Despite their horrendous play in the first forty minutes, the Devils still found themselves in the game down 2-1 with a power play to begin the third period. Predictably the power play threw up bricks, especially predictable considering the forwards on the ice for the first shift of the power play were Matteau, Jordin Tootoo and Jacob Josefson (who had yet another frustrating game where offense immediately went to die). I’m sorry, putting that line on the ice for a power play down 2-1 in the third period – Zajac or no Zajac – is inexcusable. It gave me visions of Jacques Lemaire saying screw it and using Colin White on the power play late in the Devils’ ill-fated 2010 first round series with the Flyers. Yet in spite of that powerless failure, the Devils found themselves back in the game moments later when Palmeri tied the game with a one-timer off a rebound. For several minutes the Devils finally showed the passion they should have been exhibiting for the entire night and the crowd responded too. The building was alive again.
And then bang, the Flyers took the lead back and not only deflated the building but seemingly deflated the Devils too, as New Jersey managed just one shot – ONE! – in the final fifteen minutes of the game. That one shot however was a doozy, coming after Josefson finally did something good and drew a late penalty to give the Devils one more chance on the power play. After some anxious moments they finally managed to gain control in the Flyer zone long enough to get Cory Schneider off the ice, and Mike Cammalleri’s loose puck rebound finally found the back of the net to tie the game with exactly one minute left in regulation. Even that goal however didn’t exactly improve the Devils’ play in the OT as the unfazed Flyers continued to skate over and around the Devils. Somewhat contreversially, Matt Read elbowed Palmeri late in the OT leading to a two-on-one which Greene misplayed and whoever the other forward was (Elias?) was ridiculously slow getting back into the play, leaving Schneider helpless to stop Read’s goal, even if he got a huge chunk of it.
As if the game itself was annoying enough, hearing the players acknowledge en masse that their effort in the first forty minutes wasn’t good enough further infuriated me. After all the talk earlier this week about how the Devils needed to respond in these type of games they continue to fail to do so. I mean I guess it’s better than the alternative of not acknowledging there’s any problem at all, like Hynes did to a degree when he essentially took the players off the hook and praised their effort. Still, even if you recognize there’s a problem if you do nothing to correct it then that’s just as bad as not seeing there’s a problem in the first place. Doing so against a rival team is doubly bad. At home is just icing on the cake. This Devil team is starting to remind me of the Mets the previous few seasons when they would put up inspired efforts on the road, come home and then fall into a malaise. Or the football Giants, who generally play up and down to their competition. If this team wants to make anything of this season, they need to get over both hangups and fast.