After a predictable homestand where they lost two out of three despite outshooting both Vegas and the Jets while beating up on an AHL outfit in the Habs for forty minutes, the Devils have officially wasted all their margin for error in the span of just eight days. Just one point ahead of the Blue Jackets for the first wild card and three points ahead of the Panthers for the second with Florida having three games in hand, things look a lot different now than they did at the beginning of the month. At this point I’m just sick and tired of ranting on this team and sick and tired of fearing the worst (despite my well-founded cynicism as a fan of teams who’ve often found ways to snatch a choke from the jaws of victory).
For a team with a lead – however slim – things could not look worse right now for the Devils traveling to Nashville for the first game of a monster six-game trip without two of its top three centers in Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha. Which leaves our top three centers as Nico Hischier, Blake Coleman and Brian Boyle with the fourth center role nonexistent – although currently we have two fourth-liners on the second and third line. While Nashville brings in Ryan Johansen, Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino as its top three centers. The only word to describe that difference is mismatch. Really the entire game tomorrow looks like a mismatch – from our defense to our goaltending to coaching, there isn’t really one area you can look at right now and say we’re anywhere close to the Preds except for wing play. And that’s mostly because of transcendent Taylor Hall.
Of course it seems like this team has played its best with its backs to the wall this year. From early in the season when they had something to prove to other situations where they looked like they were about to fall down an elevator shaft before coming back from the ledge (exhibit A: our last-ditch comeback in Philly a few weeks back). That had better prove true again for a trip many feared could be make or break for our season, which now officially it is. Especially when you compare our schedule to that of our main competitors, the scorching-hot Panthers and suddenly streaking Blue Jackets. Granted too much can be made of schedules down the stretch (ask the 2007 Mets), but the difference is so stark it’s mind-boggling.
Sure we usually play up to our competition, and that’s really my last hope left for this team. That they somehow rise up with the odds now against them and come through again with backs to the wall. This trip is going to show once and for all whether this organization’s turned the corner or if they’re still losers and chokers with too many talent deficiencies to play with the big boys when it matters. While it may be a harsh assessment of a team that’s given us sixty games of excitement before this last 1-4 stretch that’s blown away our cushion, other than Hall and perhaps defenseman Sami Vatanen I can’t really say a lot of these guys have earned the benefit of the doubt. Of course a few exceptions being our rookies who have for the most part responded admirably in their first pro season but at different times in the second half Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher have bumped up against the rookie wall.
Certainly our goaltending hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. I say goaltending a bit loosely because let’s be honest, even in this team’s slump Keith Kinkaid has actually managed to keep the team afloat, and not our overrated starter. I’m tired of bagging on Cory too, nice man and he knows he has to do better but let’s be honest – ten straight games of three goals or more just isn’t cutting it from anyone let alone a guy who was supposed to be a top starter a couple years ago but now might be washed up at 31. While Kinkaid’s allowed two goals or less in six of his last seven starts, the only exception being the most recent game against the Habs where he and everyone lost focus at 6-1 late in the second period, turning the final score into a faux close finish getting to 6-4 with thirty seconds remaining. If coach John Hynes is going to give Cory the puck again tomorrow it’s now time once and for all for this overrated goalie to prove he can actually stop pucks when it matters and not just when the team’s fifty games out or behind in games.
We need better from our D too, I know the captain is getting up there in age and probably shouldn’t be playing as much as he has but we need better from Andy Greene, there’s no two ways about it. Not to mention Damon Severson, who continues to be a roller-coaster ride, earning a benching for his ‘defense’ or lack thereof on the Jets’ clinching goal last night. Throw in Ben Lovejoy too, after the staff finally seemed inclined to not treat him as a #1 defenseman and actually spotting him in in and out of the lineup here we are again with Lovejoy getting key minutes and a fixture in the lineup once again. If he’s going to be put out there then he as a vet (by the way one of the few on the team that’s actually experienced playoff success) needs to step up too.
Up front we need better from anyone that’s not Hall pretty much. We need Kyle Palmieri as a vet leader to step up and be more consistent than he’s been. It would also be nice to throw out an APB on Michael Grabner. Maybe he’ll get one point before the end of the season in a Devils uniform, just one. So far he’s given us zippo in seven games. It would be nice if Pavel Zacha could ever find consistency – and consistency that results in actual offensive production. Of course he and fellow center Zajac need to get healthy first, this team really can’t afford too many more mangames lost at this juncture. At least one body came back into the lineup Thursday, in the form of Brian Gibbons who missed 22 straight games after a broken thumb. A little of his early-season magic could go a long way now. Although Patrick Maroon has been fine since he arrived unlike Grabner we also need better than to take stupid penalties like the one late in the third period against the Jets that shut off one of our last comeback attempts.
We also need more from the coaching too, although I can’t really blame Hynes for the goaltending failure, there have been suspect personnel decisions at times outside of the goaltending too (the continued insistence on sticking Boyle on the PP for one). However, it’s now time to hold Cory accountable (really both guys) and just merry-go-round the goalies. With no cushion left, you can’t afford to wait and pray Cory magically returns to his 2015-16 form. It’s also time to reinforce accountability for the other sixteen or seventeen skaters that aren’t doing the job. One of the byproducts of the trade deadline was we were at least supposed to have depth both up front and on D. However that depth is useless if we’re just gonna run out the same bodies to the same results over and over again.
It’s time for this group to decide once and for all what they want the legacy of this team to be – a gritty team that finally broke through to end years of playoff futility and started this franchise back on the road to relevance, or a choking team that couldn’t get the job done when it mattered most in the end. Your move, boys.