In prior seasons, one of my tells for when things were in crisis mode in Devils land was to post a DEFCON 1 YouTube (symbolizing that World War III was about to be declared) from one of my favorite movies growing up in Wargames as an illustration of how dire things were. Obviously we aren’t at DEFCON 1 territory just yet, but we aren’t in total chill mode anymore either after five straight defeats – three to our biggest rivals, four of the five games at home and in some ways tonight’s 4-2 defeat to the Panthers was actually the most alarming of all. You would think after four straight losses the team would have shown more fight and resolve than they did tonight, after playing well in a fruitless first ten minutes then giving up a breakaway and getting scored on before you could blink during the PP the team just…flatlined after that. Offensively, defensively, emotionally – all of it.
The fact they quit the rest of the first period was bad enough…the only reason it wasn’t any worse than 1-0 was Akira Schmid making some nice saves, and Dougie Hamilton’s stop of a two-on-one, one of the two he was caught back on (Schmid made the save on the other one). Then on top of that, you had a weird incident before the second period where both teams were jawing at and eyeing each other before the opening faceoff. This is where I needed to go to Twitter to figure out what the hell was going on – it turned out that on the final faceoff of the first period, Nico Hischier either slipped or fell awkwardly and wound up injuring Aleksander Barkov’s knee jostling for the puck. For the rest of the night the Panthers exacted frontier justice on Nico, hacking and slashing every chance they got and encouraged by tacit officials who seemed to side with them on the matter.
Now let’s get something straight here…anyone – and that includes the Panthers and the refs tonight – who think Nico is somehow a dirty player is either stupid or willfully obtuse. Yeah a guy who has all of ‘two’ penalty minutes in thirty games this season is a dirty player, get out of here with that nonsense. It’s unfortunate that Barkov got hurt, but the fact that they took it out on Nico and the Devils themselves did not respond the same way the Panthers responded to their captain getting hurt was troubling, to say the least.
You would at least have been able to excuse it or rationalize it somewhat if the Devils were laser-focused and made the Panthers pay on the scoreboard, but that never occured either. In fact, it was the Panthers who got the next goal, a rare short-side clunker allowed by Schmid who – if this is it for him in the near future with Mackenzie Blackwood’s return now imminent – can at least hang his hat on five wins and tidy splits (1.96 GAA, .932 save) in his second stint here. While the Devils didn’t show much in terms of pushback, at least they managed to get on the board, barely. After Sergei Bobrovsky tried to run into Dawson Mercer outside the crease and draw an interference call, John Marino put the puck into a vacated net but the refs made their one substantial contribution to the game and didn’t buy the Bob’s flopper act – although it took several anxious minutes for Toronto to confirm the no-call on the ice and ding the Panthers a power play for a failed challenge.
Not that getting another power play mattered, since our man advantage was just as clueless as our penalty kill was on that approximately five-second power play that opened the scoring. And yet again, as they’ve done so often during this streak the Devils gave up a killer late goal (this time with forty seconds left) in a period to make the score 3-1, and it might as well have been 30-1 with how little fight the team showed from the middle of the first period on, until very late in the third. It took about that long for there to be any response at all to the Panthers’ physical play, which typically came from Smith midway through the third period after Mercer got hit along the boards. Fortunately he didn’t cost us our power play as it was a matching minor.
Of course the team did little with the man advantage, the only reason there was even any suspense in the building – and juice – for the last five minutes was when Mike McLeod of all people made a pretty behind-the-net feed to (again, of all people) Erik Haula for a sure goal even he couldn’t botch. Finally, this moment of shock skill is what brought the team back to life but it was too little too late. Laughably, the Panthers’ empty net clincher came right smack after a timeout and cemented a 4-2 loss that was well-deserved, as is the team’s now five-game losing streak.
To be fair, it’s not as if they’ve played poorly throughout the losing streak…but it always seems to be something else. No-showing against the Islanders, handing away the Ranger game with stupidity, getting goalie stoned against the Flyers and backing down last night. Not to mention the Damon Severson fiasco in the aforementioned Flyers game on Thursday – where realistically all the Devils had to do against a team they were dominating was avoid a dumb, killer mistake and they would probably at least get to overtime, where they’ve generally been good so far this year (Ranger game aside). Lindy Ruff even reminded the team midway through the period they didn’t need to make risky plays. Lo and behold, moments later…
Severson arguably made it worse in the postgame where he basically shrugged off the hideous, unneeded turnover as ‘just trying to make a play’. Well my dude, if you want to complain (justifiably) about how the team had a losing culture the last several years like you did before the Ranger game, one of the biggest reasons we’ve been struggling for those several years is having YOU as a top-pairing defenseman. And one of the biggest reasons the team had been surging until recently is being able to play Severson in a quasi-second and third pairing role where a guy like him with his penchant for…idiosyncratic play belongs. Or just plain idiotic. If you thought a veteran coach like Ruff would ordinarily be more forgiving of a vet mistake, if anything it was the opposite.
Not only did he bench Severson the last several minutes of that defeat, but he made him a healthy scratch to emphasize the point last night, a move which I was all for. Even if it may well have compromised our chances of winning since there’s no argument to be made about Smith or even an improved Kevin Bahl being as good as ‘normal’ Severson. Losing streak or no losing streak, if you’re not going to send a message in December with still somewhat of a cushion to work with, when can you? Would it really have been too much to ask the rest of the team to play well enough where losing Severson wouldn’t be an issue? What was particularly galling about last night is it seemed as if everyone was competing to turn the puck over like Damon, to the point where I thought Lindy’s next move might be to pull a Gene Hackman from Hoosiers and just play shorthanded.
Yes, we still have a playoff cushion of eight points with two games in hand…but if the team continues to play poorly for the rest of the month, before you know it we’ll be right back on the bubble with the old doubts and bad habits creeping in. I don’t want coal from the Devils for yet another Christmas.