It’s hard to believe that Thursday afternoon (a mere three days ago, to be exact) the Devils were sitting pretty with a nine-point lead on a playoff spot, seemingly in the clear with 19 games to go and dopey message board fans were already debating the merit of possible playoff matchups. Yet even I, with my ingrained Met and Jet fan negativity could not fathom that we’re now sitting here Sunday talking about a team in a death spiral whose lead has gone from nine points to four in record time. Really the four point lead isn’t even that comfortable with a surging Panther team having won six in a row with three games in hand on us, while the Blue Jackets are winning big in San Jose about to pull within three points of the Devils and level in games. So realistically our nine-point cushion on the field is now down to three points. In the space of just seventy-two hours. Even for this Met and Jet fan that’s hard to believe.
Things probably won’t get better before they get worse either. This was supposed to be the part of the schedule where the Devils could put away teams like the Hurricanes, Panthers and Blue Jackets once and for all. Where they needed to put them away before the six-game road trip of doom arrived upon us. Even before that trip though, they have to make some hay in their remaining two games at home, against a suddenly hot Habs team playing for pride and a Jets team we never do well against. Somehow I don’t think the Devils could even beat the New York Jets right now, let alone a Winnipeg team that’s taken it to us in recent years and is sitting near the top of the West this year.
It’s not even that the Devils have lost three straight that has me now pressing the panic button, it’s to who and how they’ve lost these games. To put it succinctly nothing’s working right now for this team except for Taylor Hall and (ironically) the power play which has actually scored in three straight games after a several-week period of being completely clueless. Maybe we were better off with the power play stinking since we seemed to win more then. Of course it’s hard to win any games if you put up a grand total of one five-on-five goal in three games. Our new acquisitions have yet to make any real impact other than Pat Maroon having a decent game in Florida and after getting tons of goals early in the season from guys like Brian Gibbons and Brian Boyle, the secondary scoring has completely dried up.
It hurts to type this but in many ways Boyle’s the poster child for the falling off of the secondary scoring. Even though you weren’t really expecting the ten goals and six assists he put up in his first 25 games as a Devil coming off cancer treatment, by the same token you also need to get better than the one goal and one assist with a -9 he’s had in the 27 games since. Maybe he’s fallen off physically after everything he and his family have gone through this season. I’m not gonna call for him to be scratched, that’s a very delicate situation and I don’t envy the staff on this one. I get he’s got intangibles you want in the locker room for a playoff push but at some point coach John Hynes and his staff really need to cut back their reliance on the veteran role player. Especially on the power play where he’s a total non-factor and skill guys like Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt continually get bypassed by this staff’s need to have slow pluggers on the 5-on-4, many times slowing play down and nullifying the man advantage by taking away skill.
Yes, the PP has finally shown a pulse lately in general but much of that’s due to Hall, who’s consistently in the middle of what little good has been happening this week. I bleed for him…how can you not if you’re a Devils fan? He’s putting up a career season and has more than double the points of any Devil not named Nico Hischier. Even Hischier is 31 points behind Hall in production this year. Of course Hall’s probably not going to get serious Hart consideration despite Devil fans doing their best to get his name into the conversation with MVP chants as his scoring streak continues to climb toward thirty straight games and counting. Yet even his production – and the play of defenseman Sami Vatanen (22 points in 42 games as a Devil, consistently playing 23+ minutes a night now as the team’s #1 defenseman) – isn’t enough to patch the hole on a ship that is taking on water.
I’ve seen Titanic-like collapses from my teams before which is part – but only part – of the reason I’m paranoid of a similar fate befalling the Devils now. The 2007 and 2008 Mets. Too many December swoons and January heartbreaks from my Jets to count. Suffice it to say I’ve seen these kind of scripts before. Yes, for a long time the Devils were a shining beacon for me as a sports fan but 2003 was nearly fifteen years ago now. Even 2012 and the Devils’ unexpected run to the Finals was six years ago, and the last time this franchise played a playoff game. Few players or coaches are left from even that point in time six years ago. It’s not as if this franchise is filled with winners who know how to get it done. As far as I can remember the only guy on the roster who has a Stanley Cup is Ben Lovejoy, who shouldn’t exactly be a key player on any team.
It would probably take less time to go over what isn’t a problem (Hall/Vatanen) than what is. I’ve already touched on the secondary scoring, the defense is still spotty at best with all the non-Vatanen defensemen taking turns of having particularly bad games of suckage and providing little offense themselves. Even rookie Will Butcher’s quieted down significantly on the offensive front lately with just one assist in his last fifteen games. Coaching is an issue, or more accurately x’s and o’s. While I’ll still defend John Hynes on his handling of players, he and the staff’s in-game decisions are spotty at best. I already touched on the power play usage earlier, not to mention other bizarre decisions like having Lovejoy on the ice in the final two minutes trailing by a goal. Like, why not just throw out the fourth liners too while you’re at it?
But now I’m finally going to get to my main point of consternation from not only tonight but with this team as a whole – goaltending. Specifically our so-called top ten franchise goaltender. And this doesn’t mean Keith Kinkaid or Eddie Lack or Ken Appelby. No, now I’m looking straight at YOU Cory Schneider. Yes, the position that was supposed to be not a problem anymore once Cory came riding in on his white horse is suddenly even more of a problem than it was once Kinkaid stabilized his own game this month. At least Kinkaid managed to actually make some saves when the team was tied or had a lead and won some big division games, Cory never seems to do either. Whether it’s giving up the killer softy during the game when the team’s tied or in front – twice in fact today – or the killer late goal (see the Florida game), it seems as if this goaltender always finds a way to be anti-clutch.
It was one thing when Cory was putting up .925 save percentages on dogmeat teams that didn’t have a chance, but the last two years Cory hasn’t been anywhere near elite and now this year the stakes are much higher than they’ve been since Cory’s first season as a Devil – where to a degree he was snakebit, but he also crapped out in March when he had his chance to take the job outright from a fading Martin Brodeur. Cory’s failed by any metric over the last two years, whether it’s winning games or stopping pucks. At least in the past he would stop pucks somewhat frequently but putting up GAA’s of 2.8 with save percentages of .910 isn’t what I had in mind from a supposed franchise goalie. After Cory’s first clunker goal allowed – an unstoppable short-side floater that may have been slightly tipped but hardly enough to change course – I told my friend I was basically one soft goal from being off the Cory bandwagon for good. I didn’t think that goal was going to come IN THE SAME PERIOD though, another floater that Cory gave up a soft rebound on.
Not only does Cory need to step up but the head coach needs to have the onions to give him the hook if he doesn’t. It’s not exactly unprecedented for a mediocre starter (which is all Cory is at this point, at best) to lose his job to an unheralded backup. My most vivid example of this is when career minor leaguer Andrew Hammond got on a roll and kept the job for the Senators a couple years ago even when starter Craig Anderson returned from injury. Maybe at this point Hynes needs to keep riding Kinkaid and see if he can put together a Hammond-like stretch. They can’t wait indefinitely for Cory to get going, not when the team’s leaking out points like a sieve and the team’s heading for a brutal stretch of games. This is where the head coach, the goaltender and this franchise as a whole is going to have to prove its mettle once and for all, or gain a reputation as chokers. Maybe it’ll take getting their backs to the wall to get this team to play with the same passion they did early in the season when they had something to prove. That’s always a dangerous game to play though…one that usually doesn’t end well. I know this from plenty of fan experience.
I’m not even sure I want to go Tuesday. I’ve been beaten down by a lot of home losses lately – in fact I’ve only seen two home wins live since late December. I’d traded these tickets in for a buyback credit earlier but got new free ones via a Devils sth giveaway…guess they’re desperate to try to fill the building for weekday games before a long road trip that could make or break this team once and for all. While part of me’s paranoid that I’m going to miss the only likely win this team might get in the next few, part of me is also worried that I’m going to pitch yet another fit if this team somehow loses to a Montreal team that’s been bad for most of the year – albeit they’ve picked it up in junktime lately.
And for the coup de grace after a late failed comeback attempt by the Sharks, the Blue Jackets are now indeed three points behind us. It’s time for a gut check…does this team want to be known as the team that restored pride and honor to the Devils crest or as the team that pulled off an epically horrific choke?
Your move, boys.