Another loss dampens the holiday mood in Newark

The good news is at least our long six-game losing streak finally ended in Florida with an emotional win against a team still using a fluke injury as an excuse to play thuggish. Derek chronicled the rematch (and Florida shenanigans) well enough in the previous blog here so I won’t even get into that any more except to say breaking the slide against the Panthers was extra sweet, all things considered. Especially having to come back to do it. More than anything it was a relief though, with the home-and-home against the Bruins looming I knew we weren’t exactly out of the woods yet, especially with everyone else around us in the division on mini-heaters of their own.

Sure enough, we were in for more angst last night in an avoidable 4-3 loss. As has been the case a lot in recent years, goaltending (on both sides of the rink) was the story starting with Linus Ullmark continuing his ridiculous season in Boston with another gem of a performance, making 37 stops last night and arguably keeping the Bruins in the game when the Devils got off to a fast start. In the first period, the Devils outshot the NHL’s best team 11-5 with Jack Hughes opening the scoring on the power play, but despite that and another twelve shots in the second period they were unable to press their advantage. Ullmark made all sorts of ridiculous stops, from Miles Wood on a breakaway in the first period to Nico Hischier on a two-on-one early in the second, and so forth.

In fact, things quickly turned from sweet to sour in a second period where no fewer than four goals got past Mackenzie Blackwood. In fairness, it wasn’t all his fault…certainly not the first goal. In fact, the first goal you could probably put on stonehands Erik Haula. Bad enough he loses a faceoff to Patrice Bergeron in the defensive zone, that’s gonna happen against one of the best faceoff guys in the league. But to not even cover him and let him drift into the middle of the ice for a quick deflection goal to tie the game? Inexcusable. And Boston’s fourth goal in their second-period wave you can put straight on the shoulders of rookie defenseman Kevin Bahl, whose faulty clearing attempt led to a turnover right in the slot and another bang-bang goal (this time by Jake DeBrusk) that ended Bahl’s night. Even announcer Bill Spaulding basically called the benching right before the third period, alluding to ‘we’ll see how much time Bahl gets in the third after his turnover late in the second’.

Then we get to the middle two goals of the second period…goal number two was all on Blackwood, from his own faulty attempt at an outlet to failing to control a dribbler of a shot, somehow losing his stick in the process and then letting the rebound go five-hole for a David Pastrnak goal and a Bruins lead they’d never quite relinquish. Goal number three I’d probably slice up equally between Blackwood and a suddenly struggling Jonas Siegenthaler, with the latter inexcusably allowing Pastrnak to cut inside and have an open slot area, and the former allowing Pastrnak to beat him shortside blocker for his second goal of the game.

By the time the water receded, the Devils were down 4-1 and Blackwood had burned through any amount of goodwill he earned with his streak-busting performance in Florida. You can’t even attribute the four-goal period to having defensemen John Marino and Ryan Graves out of the lineup and playing two rookies in their place. Not when it’s the veterans making mistakes on three of the goals, and not when you win the territorial battle against a team that was an incredible 26-4-2 before last night’s game. Even Lindy Ruff sounded exacerbated by the goaltending in the postgame, maybe we’ve finally gotten to the place where Blackwood doesn’t have a long leash anymore.

Not that it seems like any of the goalies have a long leash at this point. Vitek Vanecek’s poor game in Carolina bought Blackwood a golden opportunity to reclaim his starting job straight off of IR, while Akira Schmid basically got numbers gamed back down to Utica despite his mostly strong play. Even if you want to say Vanecek’s recent slump was him regressing to the mean of him being an average goalie before this year, average still would have been more than good enough to win last night. Proof arriving in the third period when Vanecek did come in and allowed no more goals, while the Devils managed to finally put a couple past Ullmark – both on rebounds off deflected shots. Tomas Tatar’s putback gave the Devils a pulse with just under nine minutes left in the game, then Yegor Sharangovich’s rebound goal made it a game again at 13:47 of the third. Even against a good goalie like Ullmark, if you go to the front of the net and hunt for rebounds, eventually you’ll find a couple.

Still, the last ditch surge proved to be too little, too late when Ullmark shut the door again in the final minutes, and the Devils had yet another frustrating defeat to ruminate over – their seventh in eight games. Tatar summed up the frustration with last night’s loss (and some of the Devils’ recent play in general) pretty succinctly in the postgame.

New Jersey’s once-double digit lead in the Metro is long gone as the Hurricanes breezed past them right back into first place after Tuesday’s 4-1 shellacking in Carolina. Not that I ever really cared about the division, as we learned time and again when the Devils were consistently good seeding hardly matters once the playoffs begin. Our main goal is still just making sure we get to the playoffs at all. In a brutal division where the Islanders have 40 points in 35 games and are on the outside looking in, the Devils’ seemingly insurmountable playoff cushion after a 21-2-1 surge has shrunk to just six points over the Isles heading into Christmas.

On the one hand, at least we can be thankful that the Devils still have meaningful hockey at all heading into the New Year, which hasn’t been the case in the last four seasons – all of which the Devils were pretty well out of it by the calendar turn, with no sign at all of turning the bus around. On the other hand, if they somehow blow the playoffs this year, that’s actually worse in a way than the irrelevant seasons of the recent past. At some point this organization has to learn how to win, no more talk about how the next prospect in the draft will be the one to fix the problems, no more let’s just wait for these players to mature. They’ve already shown enough that the time should be now to take the next step, there’s no excuse left if they don’t.

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