Groundhog Day in Newark

These days watching the Devils feels like Bill Murray stuck in a near hopeless loop in the ’90’s comedy Groundhog Day, reliving the same nightmare over and over and over again. Devils take lead(s) in a home game, lose leads including one in the third period, then lose the extra OT/SO point for the icing on the cake. So far the team’s played eight of its eleven games at home and only has two lousy one-goal wins over the Rangers and Vancouver, the only games they did manage to hold onto third period leads. In the other six games?

  • Lead the Jets 4-0 with seconds left in the second period during the season opener, lose 5-4 in OT in a tone-setting defeat
  • Lead the Panthers 4-1 in the second period, lose the game 6-4 in regulation
  • Take three leads over the Oilers, lose them all including the last one with less than two minutes left in regulation, then proceed to lose the shootout
  • Take early 2-0 and 3-2 leads over Arizona but bad goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood sinks them this time in a 5-3 loss
  • Take a 5-3 lead over a struggling Lightning team in the third period, lose that lead then after miraculously tying the game again with seconds remaining lose the game again in OT.
  • Last night? Score first and take a 3-2 lead over the Flyers after a potentially season-turning Taylor Hall goal in the middle of the third period, only to lose it ninety seconds later on another sketchy Blackwood goal allowed and then lose the shootout – again.

Notice the pattern?

Granted, as a Devil fan I’ve been complaining about blown leads on and off since the 2005 lockout, and am constantly told ‘new NHL brah…teams can’t hold leads the way they once did’. Which is true – but this season and coach John Hynes’ entire tenure really is beyond the pale of any reasonable margin of error holding leads. When you take the lead in eight home games in a month’s span and can only win two of them (including four multi-goal leads), that’s a real indicator of a problem.

From here on in whenever someone tells me the coaching’s fine, it’s the players that are the problem – specifically the goalies (who I’ll get to in a moment) – last night’s game will be among the first I cite to tell them they’re out of their mind. Fans do tend to spend a disproportionate amount of attention worrying who’s on the fourth line or third defensive pairing, I admit that. That said, using the current fourth line of Miles Wood, Kevin Rooney and John Hayden as a shutdown, energy line thinking they’re some cross between John Madden/Jay Pandolfo and the Crash Line in their heyday is just mind-bogglingly dense. First off, they’re not even that good – Rooney’s a marginal NHL player, Hayden probably not even that and Wood has been a massive dissapointment since signing his four-year contract last offseason.

In a larger sense though, you use your fourth line at home against other teams’ fourth lines. You do not use your fourth line at home against other teams’ first lines. Sometimes it’s unavoidable on the road, but at home with the last change there’s no excuse. Throwing out the fourth line automatically after our power play, when the other teams are likely not using their first liners so they generally get thrown out after a penalty kill is over with, is bad enough. You could at least justify it after a long power play when likely eight of the top nine forwards play a power play. Sometimes that’s unavoidable too. But if you’re automatically going to use the fourth line after every goal that’s scored, other teams have already started to notice that and run to throw out their top liners, which is usually why every time Hynes throws out the fourth liners after a goal they get pinned in and in a couple of instances have given up the quick retaliation goal.

Alain Vigneault did something nearly impossible last night and out linematched another coach on the road. Of course you could say Hynes out linematched himself. Especially late in the second period which was the worst instance of all, and only by a perverse stroke of luck didn’t result in a goal against. When you have a defensive zone faceoff in the final half minute of a period, with the last change, you DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT put out the darn fourth-liners! If there’s ever an instance where another team will deploy its top line automatically it’s in the last half minute of a period in the offensive zone. When you see the other coach has Claude Giroux and company on the ice in the offensive zone with seconds remaining, any normal human being is not looking at it and saying oooh I can get Kevin Rooney on the ice to match up! Even though the fourth line somehow escaped disaster there, it wasn’t by much and probably lost me for good in terms of believing this coaching staff can ever get it turned around.

Hynes’ defenders (yes, believe it or not there are still defenders) will point to the goaltending of Blackwood and Cory Schneider and say how can any coach win with this type of goaltending? And clearly the goaltending has not been good enough, which is putting it mildly – and probably the reason GM Ray Shero traded for Tampa’s Louis Domingue last night for depth, to put the top two guys on notice. As Corey Masiak pointed out in the Athletic with the below blurb posted for emphasis, the Devils’ .856 team save percentage going into last night’s game is on par with the expansion Washington Capitals of the early ’70’s, generally cited as the worst team in NHL history.

Assessing a goaltender’s performance is never easy, with things like fluky bounces and poor play in front of net affecting the results. Still, there is no way to write off New Jersey’s .856 save percentage after 10 games. No team has finished with a save percentage worse than .884 this century. The 1974-75 expansion Washington Capitals had an .855 save percentage. That team won eight games.

Woof. And considering save percentages have only skyrocketed in the last fifty years, the .856 save percentage now would probably have been closer to .820 back then. Last night wasn’t much better. Blackwood is obviously better than Cory at this point but that’s like saying MS is better than brain cancer, one just kills you slower than the other. You would have certainly liked a save on the tying goal on Joel Farabee barely thirty seconds after Hall’s lead-grabbing (and ear-grabbing) goal in the third period last night.

And yes, let’s get to the suddenly enigmatic star. I didn’t see this ear grab in real time, like most of the crowd I was just excited about the goal and how Hall had somehow scored while being crosschecked into the ice from behind. It looked like Adam Banks’ goal against the fictional Hawks in the first Mighty Ducks movie lol, only thankfully Hall’s head didn’t quite hit the post the way the Banks’ did in the movie. Even now I’m not going to assume that Hall meant it as a taunt of the crowd the way many fans are now going nuts assuming he did.

That said, this is why you don’t go down the road of criticizing the fans lightly…because every little tick will now be taken as a slight or perceived slight, whether irrational or not. And IF Hall did actually mean it as a ‘you ******** like me now moment?’ rather than as a ‘let’s ****ing go, let’s hear it, boys!’ type mechanism to pump up the crowd more, then he is every bit as petulant and moody as he’s currently being made out to be. And if he thinks our crowd is tough and surly, well go back to Canada or go play in some other big market where they’ll boo you before you blink once you sign an $80+ million deal and don’t produce there.

I probably didn’t even get into the crowd thing as much as I wanted to Thursday morning cause I just wanted to get to sleep, and I don’t doubt there are some yahoos who just go to get hammered and look for attention doing or saying something stupid. Every crowd has them, some more than others. And to be fair last night after Hall’s contreversial comments on Wednesday, there was a smattering of boos the first time he touched the puck last night, but they quickly got drowned out by a ‘Let’s Go Devils!’ chant once the majority of the crowd realized what was happening. Even as annoyed as I am at Hall for what he said, I wasn’t going to go down that road. At least not last night. If he petulantly taunted the fans? Then next time might be different. And it doesn’t look good when the team’s clip of the postgame interview with Hall cuts out right before he’s about to answer a question about his goal celebration.

Lemme just say this though, the majority of fans do NOT go to games wanting to boo, or wanting to be on their smartphones for the whole game cause the team sucks and isn’t worth watching, or stay home entirely because it just isn’t worth the aggravation anymore. We want to be there and cheer, we want to have something to get excited for, we want to enjoy the atmosphere with our friends and families. I don’t want to have to worry about giving away or selling tickets for $12.50 apiece in freaking November. I want to have moments to get excited about. We as a fanbase haven’t had enough of that in the last eight years. The spring of 2018 was a nice, brief taste of the glory days again but that’s literally all we’ve had since 2012 in terms of tangible accomplishment. And even that team was in and out of the playoffs almost as quickly as this year’s Devils blow a two-goal lead.

This year’s team was supposed to represent the biggest step forward under Shero and finally a return to relevance for good, but instead has turned into a massive embarassment where nobody seems to be accountable, except from the fans (which is another reason why Hall’s comments rankled me – the fans are the only ones who HAVE been the least bit critical of this team and we haven’t even been that critical compared to most markets!). Certainly the staff’s allowed to continue making constant in-game mistakes, run a pond hockey system and leaving talented players in the stands who can get better with time to develop, while overplaying grit guys who can’t. The players themselves…where’s the accountability and leadership in the locker room? In the previous Hynes years when you heard of someone calling a team meeting or someone having critical comments about the team’s performance after the game, it wasn’t from milquetoast captain Andy Greene or supposed leader Hall. It was from role players like Brian Boyle, Ben Lovejoy and Drew Stafford (none of whom are here anymore by the way). That’s a problem too. Not every leader has to be Scott Stevens but you need a bad cop in the room somewhere, and not one that’s an expendable back end piece.

If fans can be irrational at times, well as I said above the fans are the only ones taking this team to task at the moment. Shero having his assistant GM go down on the bench really did very little to change things other than the first couple of games briefly. Trading for a borderline NHL goalie to put the top guys on notice was a good start but hardly a brushback fastball upstairs to suggest five years of mostly losing is enough. And forget the media…the local media is mostly useless in terms of asking tough questions, not only that but Chris Ryan and Abbey Mastraco seem to be better at getting snarky with fans on Twitter than their actual jobs. Yes, Chris people are going to complain about the fourth line when they get used in the way they got used last night. And yes Abbey, people are going to complain nobody asked Hall a tough question about his own performance the other night when there’s no video on the question you supposedly asked or quote of the answer he gave. I’m not asking for a vulture media like Montreal, but how about a cage-rattler like Larry Brooks (yuck I feel dirty saying that)? Your job isn’t to carry water for the team when things are going badly, it’s to get answers to stuff the fans want to know. Is that too much to ask in 2019?

UPDATE: And sure enough the Hall response to the celebration was…not good.

When asked about the celebration, Hall laughed, saying there wasn’t any ill will behind it.

“I thought I heard, I thought I was getting booed in the second period there,” Hall said. “So just making light of that fact.”

Welp add another few thousand boos to that next time then Taylor, including mine. If you want to play the heel you’d better be an MVP and not flop the way you did in the shootout last night. Otherwise das vidanya, comrade!

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1 Response to Groundhog Day in Newark

  1. Derek Felix says:

    Excellent post Hasan. Sorry you have to write about such badness. Hopefully, they give you something to cheer about soon. Hughes is doing his part. That’s good at least.


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