Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect from this Devils team period to period anymore let alone game to game. Just this last week has been a prime example of that. Start the mini-West Coast swing off strong with a 2-1 win in Colorado. Follow that up with a frighteningly incompetent 5-0 loss against Arizona (who hadn’t had a home win all season). Then go to Columbus and dominate a good Blue Jackets team in a 4-1 win that caused the always calm and reserved John Tortorella to cancel a day off and bag skate his players the next day. Finally the team comes back home today, again looks dominant against the Jackets early and jump out to a 2-0 lead after one…before the roof fell in in the final forty minutes. If I didn’t know better I’d swear I watched two different games tonight. Not only did the Devils lose after jumping out to a lead, it really wasn’t even that close in a 5-3 meltdown that was worrisome for a number of reasons.
Going back to an old Lou Lamoriello saying (or maybe I just know the saying from Lou and it’s older than that) – your best players have to be your best players. Tonight, our best players, or at least our veteran leaders were actually our worst players by far. After a recent stretch where he’d played better and almost given me confidence back in him, again Cory Schneider gave up a game-changing soft goal in the second period that tied the game. I wouldn’t say any of the other goals against were soft but I wouldn’t call a couple of them completely unstoppable either. And Cory was only the third goat of the game. Instead of stars of the game, I’m giving out goats of the game tonight.
Second goat of the game was Travis Zajac, who’s not only been clueless offensively since returning from injury – just one goal and no assists in eleven games – but has even been a shell of himself defensively and in puck possession, two areas where he normally excels blindfolded. His perfect screen on goal #3 would have been laughable if it wasn’t sad and his hideously failed attempt(s) at a clear on the momentum-changing PK early in the third period led to a minute long shift in the Devils’ zone that finally resulted in the inevitable go-ahead goal that gave the Jackets a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish and took my level of worry over Travis to highly concerned.
Even with those wonderful performances the goat of the game was none other than the captain Andy Greene, who looked drunk or stoned giving the puck away left and right so badly it looked like he was one of Santa’s elfs tossing around Christmas presents. You get a puck, and you get a puck…everyone gets a puck! His giveaway on goal #2 made him every bit as culpable as Cory on that one, and his perfect screen on goal #4 probably should get him promoted to the power play, if Travis didn’t beat him to it earlier. Too bad none of our players can screen the other goalie that well.
Of course getting guys in front to screen the goalie is the only justification for having Jimmy Hayes on the power play. I sort of get that on one hand…if you have four skill guys and one screener in front, that’s understandable. But why oh why oh why does John Hynes (or assistant Geoff Ward, whoever’s running the power play) insist on having BOTH Hayes and Brian Boyle on the top power play line? If you want to throw out two cement-footed guys at even strength and slow the tempo down that’s one thing, but having both guys on the same power play just saps all the skill from it, and the power plays tonight – including a four-minute double minor in the third period – were horrifically bad, in no small part due to the lack of skill or speed up front. I don’t want to slag on Boyle who frighteningly enough has been our best center not named Nico Hischier, and did score the first goal tonight at even strength. Hayes almost at this point seems like the coach’s pet or the team mascot. A guy who’s more or less in the lineup cause he’s a ‘good chemistry guy’.
That said I’d still rather see Hayes in the lineup over Drew Stafford at this point. Talk about a one-week wonder, Stafford’s completely shut down and looked like the guy I always knew he was in Buffalo, streaky but whose bad streaks last a lot longer than the good ones, and he just doesn’t add anything to the team when he’s not scoring. It would be nice to get Pavel Zacha in the lineup for Stafford next game but he’s still on the back of a milk carton somewhere. If I have one issue with team management (whether it’s Hynes, GM Ray Shero or some combination) right now it’s the continued strange marginalization of Zacha. If you don’t want him in the lineup because he isn’t playing well I can understand that, especially on a team that is still in a playoff position for the moment. But sitting out three straight games is a bit excessive at this point. Either he’s a part of your lineup or he’s not and send him down to the AHL. Of the three options available to the Devils – play in the NHL, play in the AHL, sit in the NHL – the latter is the most undesirable but now the one management’s taking. And when Zacha does play he rarely gets above twelve minutes anymore.
Funny thing is I’ve calmed down a bit since the game ended although I was so frustrated by this loss I actually left early which I never do in a competitive game. But at 5-3 late in the third after the failed four-minute power play and after Columbus scored quickly on one of their own, you knew it was over and that was the final backbreaker. It was the worst loss of the season from my standpoint, worse than even the stupid no-shows against the Panthers and Coyotes last week. Worse cause of how they had the lead then completely shut off mentally after the first period, and worse cause now you have to seriously worry about vet leaders Greene and Zajac, who were both actually demoted late in the game – though it was too late by then at least it showed Hynes wasn’t blind to all the ills of the team tonight. Just the ones on the power play.
In many ways it could either be the best thing or the worst thing to have the Rangers come up tomorrow night at MSG. Either the Devils are able to flush this loss quickly or they lose another big division game and face the danger of enough of a losing streak to take them from first to on the playoff bubble entirely based on how tight the East is – and in particular the Metro. One thing that worries me and has for a while is that we’re due for a market correction on the road. 10-3-2 away from the Prudential Center is just unsustainable even for elite teams, I’m sorry. In contrast the team needs to improve on their 6-5-2 record at home if they’re going to maintain their current position or anything close to it in the standings.