A day of reckoning in Newark as Devils come off second straight home embarrassment

Amazing how a couple of games can change your perspective on things…to think, I felt before the series that the nightmare scenario would be losing in 6 or 7 games. Against the Rangers, any loss would feel catastrophic but after the first two games of this series, we’d be doing well just to get it back to the Garden for a Game 6 at this point. The more things change, the more they stay the same…indeed. More hideous special teams, more bad coaching decisions, more dumb penalties and the same lack of adjustments to the Ranger gameplan led to the exact same result in Game 2 – another 5-1 loss at the Rock.

Granted, some things were different. For one, the Devils actually scored first – and with skaters on the ice! – when Erik Haula’s power play goal in the first period jolted the building back to life, and seemingly the team as well. At least for the rest of the first period, we finally saw glimpses of the ‘winningest Devils team of all time’. Even with that, we were fortunate to have a 1-0 lead after the first given all the good saves Vitek Vanecek had to make when the Devils (yet again) came out flat-footed in the first ten minutes of the game. Still, given we had the lead and the crowd back buzzing, I was at least somewhat hopeful we’d find our footing and have a good game on our hands.

But NOOOOO…the Devils once again came out flat in a period, again and again having to make Vitek save their collective bacon until Vladimir Tarasenko gave the Rangers their deserved breakthrough at 5:57 of the second period after a typically awful Brendan Smith shift helped the Rangers keep the zone for what seemed to be minutes before Tarasenko scored through traffic. From there, the rest of the game was like the air coming out of the collective balloon in the arena, both for the fans and the team itself. As if the Rangers needed any help last night, the Devils gladly provided it with stupid penalty after stupid penalty, two of them resulting in goals in the second period when our so-called penalty kill proved the axiom ‘those who don’t learn the past are doomed to repeat it’.

You would think after allowing two tip-in goals to Chris Kreider on the penalty kill in Game 1 that there would be some attempted adjustment, but nope – not our brilliant staff! Incredibly, Kreider repeated his Game 1 performance with another two tip-in goals on the power play as we played the exact same passive box and let them do what they wanted with the puck. Which equals four power play goals in two games if you lost count, and I’m close to losing count myself. Sam Rosen might be close to losing his voice with all the ‘IT’S A POWER PLAY GOAL!’ calls he’s making.

Kreider’s two second period goals basically ended the game as a contest given the lack of scoring opportunities the Devils have created in the series. Still, the Devils have zero five-on-five goals with their only two scores coming on a meaningless penalty shot in Game 1, and a power play in Game 2. Who knew that Igor Shesterkin wouldn’t even matter in the series since they can’t get shots to him in the first place?!

After everyone’s kvetching (including mine) about goaltending following Game 1, the Devils actually got better goaltending from Vitek in Game 2 but you wouldn’t know it from the statline. Sadly, Vitek managed to allow even more goals playing better – the fifth goal in Game 1 was an empty-netter – because the team was just that bad. Would I go with Akira Schmid in Game 3…my short answer is who cares? I have less of an appetite for this as I did before Game 2, after all what goalie was really making a difference last night? Even in Game 1, if you got above-average goaltending you’d still have lost 3-1 anyway, or 4-1 with another empty-netter. If anything, I’d rather not ruin Schmid’s confidence by putting him in when the team is a total tire fire.

As much as I want to start with the low-hanging fruit that is coaching idiocy along with dumb players like Smith and Miles Wood, I’ll start with where we should start with the eviscerations – our ‘star players’ have to be better, plain and simple. Whether it’s Timo Meier committing one of the said stupid penalties leading to the Rangers’ third goal, or Jesper Bratt clowning himself allowing a Patrick Kane breakaway special on goal #4 last night, it’s been a disappointing series for our big names. Including Dougie Hamilton, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. When other skaters are on the ice, I have the same amount of points as those five do combined. While Kreider is scoring goals by the handful, Shesterkin hasn’t allowed a 5-on-5 goal yet and Adam Fox had two assists in 21:35 of icetime last night. Simply put, their stars are playing like stars…ours have left a lot to be desired and that’s the biggest reason why instead of the competitive series most of us expected, we have the second coming of Rangers-Islanders circa 1994.

All that said, it would be nice for a veteran coach like Lindy Ruff to not actively handicap the skaters on the ice. You would expect no panic from a coach who has seen the rodeo before, but you would have been wrong in this case. Lindy’s lineup in Game 2 screamed panic mode, specifically promoting Wood to the third line after a critical mindless penalty in Game 1, and scratching Jonas Siegenthaler for Smith, who’d been relegated to a bench role down the stretch as the team was gearing up for the playoffs. When I saw the Siegs-Smith lineup change on Twitter and told my friend in 104, he seriously thought it was injury-related.

They weren’t the only ones. And that decision wasn’t made any more logical by Smith’s typically dumb neanderthal penalty in the first period, even if the Devils did manage to kill that one off. Ostensibly, he was brought in to help the PK…well mission not accomplished with two more power play goals allowed, all by the same player doing the same thing.

Just like a typical hockey dinosaur, Lindy also was keyed up on getting more physicality in the lineup (even mentioning the fact Smith was an ‘ex-Ranger’ as part of his decision was also mind-boggling). His response to the team being jumpy in Game 1 was to try to hit our way out of it in Game 2. I realize the playoffs are different from the regular season and you have to play with a more physical edge but by the same token, you can’t completely abandon what got you there. To a certain level you have to play to your strengths and make the other team stop you.

In many ways, the fact Hughes had arguably the two biggest bodychecks of his career in the first two games is both good and yet indicative of a larger problem, the fact our old-school coach wants to be more physical – and seriously thinks THAT was the problem with Game 1 rather than just nervousness and perhaps leaning too much into the skill aspect. So instead of correcting toward the middle, we overcorrected and got too stupidly physical in Game 2. Wood getting a promotion instead of a demotion is yet another example of this. And in the category of stupid players will do stupid things, he followed up a stupid penalty in Game 1 with another in Game 2.

Not that Lindy’s neanderthals were alone in stupidity, just the most obvious examples of our own self-inflicted mistakes. Nor does it look like we’re actually learning from those mistakes either, judging by the posted Game 3 practice lines:

Scratching Kevin Bahl (who’s been one of the steadiest defensemen the last few weeks) for Smith might actually be dumber than scratching Siegs given his struggles at times this season, though he laughably went from healthy scratch right back to first pairing. Keeping Meier on the third line when your ‘top’ lines aren’t scoring is part of a silly, misguided belief that you’re spreading out the scoring. There’s no such thing as spreading out the scoring when you have two goals in two games. Having Michael McLeod be his center is also laughable, while Ondrej Palat and his zero goals and five points in twenty games gets a promotion to the Hischier line. Yeah, we know he’s a ‘playoff performer’…he hasn’t exactly done it for us and there are whispers he’s not going to be the same until next year because of his groin surgery early this season. If we’re already worried about wear and tear on Palat in year one of a five-year deal, it’s gonna be fun when we get to years 3 and 4.

Anyone – Devils fan or not – might think while reading this that I and other fans should have no right to be angry with this team, after all they’ve become relevant this year again and then some. There was certainly plenty of anger after the second period yesterday, when boos rained from the sky from everyone including me. When you consider the fact this team got 112 points and set all sorts of records, to me that only upped the expectations and inflated our belief in this team. The excuse of not having experience is a cop-out (look at Seattle beating Colorado on the road in Game 1 of their series, for example), what’s the excuse for a veteran coach panicking or our supposed top D going MIA in the first two games? I certainly wasn’t asking for Cup or bust, but when you follow up a 100+ point season with a quickie exit in the first round, it feels like the regular season was a gigantic waste of time and I said the same thing in 1998 and 1999 when they had back-to-back first-round exits off of division title seasons and even those weren’t as quick as this one is shaping up to be.

Might as well have had the Buffalo season and come up heroically one point short of the playoffs if this is the best you can do now. At least we’d all have ended the season with a good feeling, and not the feeling that we were somehow conned and duped by what now looks to be a fraudulent team who didn’t belong with the big boys after all. Assuming this season ends in the next few days, it’s going to be impossible to judge how we should feel about this season. A dramatic overachieve in the regular season followed by a dramatic underachieve in the playoffs. I get small sample size, Tampa was swept by Columbus a few years ago yadda yadda yadda, spare me. A lot of their players had deep playoff runs before then, we’re still waiting for one with this group.

Not to mention there’s a difference between losing and being embarrassed. This series has been an unmitigated embarrassment so far. Yes, there are examples of teams who’ve lost the first two games of a series and come back to win. There are even examples of teams who’ve lost the first two at home winning a series. Now go and find me an example of a team who lost this badly in the first two games of a series at home that came back to win? To wit, here are the four hockey examples I’ve come up with where teams lost the first two at home and won a series:

2018 – Capitals lose the first two at home to the Blue Jackets…both games were OT losses though, certainly not embarassments

2011 – Montreal beat Boston two in a row in Boston…the combined score of both those games (2-0 and 3-1) were the score of each of our games with the Rangers.

2003 – Washington beat Tampa two in a row in Tampa 3-0 and 6-3 after a late empty-netter…close but not quite the level of our twin 5-1 defeats

2000 – Penguins beat the Flyers at Philly 2-0 and 4-1 in the first two games, again not nearly the level of emasculation twin 5-1 walkovers are.

Sadly the best example I can come up with where a team has been emasculated to this degree and won a series is the 1996 World Series, more than two decades ago in another sport. And that Yankee team had won two playoff rounds and was on its way to four titles in five years. Anyone who thinks this Devils team is going to be on that level in the near future is out of their minds.

And another thing…this team not only urinated on itself in the first two games but they did it in front of a crowd waiting for a reason to cheer, that hasn’t had much of a reason to do so in big playoff games. In spite of the Devils’ best efforts to maximize profit over getting their own fans in the building, Devil fans still outnumbered Ranger fans by a surprisingly comfortable margin in the first two games of the series. In Game 1, the Rangers (with an assist from Vitek) quickly took the crowd out of it while in Game 2, the Devils themselves gradually took the air of the building with their incompetence and stupidity. It won’t take as much effort to turn the crowd blue in Game 5 assuming a miracle doesn’t happen with the Devils actually winning both in MSG.

Not to mention the fact this team historically has been pitiful at home in the postseason since moving to Newark. Other than 2012 (where they went 7-4), they’ve had a lovely home record of 4-10 in the postseason, including 0-5 against the Rangers in 2008 and this year. In our fifteen years of Newark, we’ve won playoff series in exactly one of them – 2012. Every other year has either been an unmitigated disaster or another playoff disappointment, with the possible exception of 2018 where realistically you knew they weren’t going to be on the same level as Tampa, even if they hadn’t quite gotten into their Cup-winning stride yet.

As good as this Ranger team is, this should not be a 2018-style mismatch. Even in that series the Devils looked more competent than they have in the first two games of this series, where they pretty much gave a playoff effort for about 10 of the 120 minutes so far. Derek might point out that in the 2006 series, the Rangers themselves had an unexpectedly good season torpedoed by the Devils in four straight, so on a certain level they could gain payback here (though they clearly got payback two years later as it was). At least in that series the Rangers were down 2-0 before they hit home ice though, then lost franchise stalwart Jaromir Jagr due to injury early in Game 3. Plus we were just white-hot going into that postseason. There was no indication of any kind of mismatch this year.

So yes, I’m angry. The fact I left ‘both’ games early (partly due to train considerations, but also I just knew they weren’t coming back either time given the way they were playing) and am even considering not going to Game 5 should we be in the situation where it could be another home elimination is mind-boggling. I’ve been to every playoff game since the Rock opened, but with the way this series has gone so far and this team’s lack of…consistency at the Rock in general, I’m having trouble justifying a reason to go to Game 5 and experience MSG 2.0 yet again.

I shouldn’t have to qualify my anger by saying I’m not trying to take away one iota of credit from the Rangers, they’ve obviously executed their gameplan flawlessly and their stars have played like stars should in the postseason. God knows they’ll get plenty of credit from the national media who can’t wait to pump their tires anyway. It’s eminently possible we wouldn’t win the series even while playing well, there’s a reason both of us picked a seven-game series after all. I’m not angry we’re losing, I’m angry we’re not even giving ourselves a chance to win, or physically competing at a playoff-ready level and this was supposed to be an even matchup given where both teams finished in the regular season.

This organization has another two more games here to right the ship and at least get back the good feeling we had about this season. Otherwise we’re going to have to deal with a very sour ending to what had been a sweet return to relevance.

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