Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Heartless and gutless

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I probably would have wrote the article I'm about to (or something very close to it) back in 2000 if I was blogging then at the point the Devils fell behind 3-1 to the Flyers. You have to remember then after our first Stanley Cup win in '95 we spectacularly missed the playoffs in '96 and then lost three times in a row as the #1 seed early in the postseason so it seemed like falling apart against the Flyers that year was part of this team's modus operandi post-Cup then the way gagging in the first round has been the last two going on three years.

And in a strange twist of fate, Brian Boucher is again in net for the Flyers after a strange career that saw him rise in 2000 and then flame out shortly thereafter, bouncing around the league before finding his way back in Philly this year. So I'm sure the media, fans and maybe even the team itself will play off the deja vu, thinking they still have a chance at 3-1. And there is deja vu at work here, but it's not the kind Devils fans want to hear or think about.

Why don't I believe a comeback is possible now where one occured in 2000? After all, that year we had to win twice in Philly and this time we only have to win once. Well for one thing, just look at how the teams match up. In the late '90's and early '00's we more than held our own against the Flyers including winning the '95 Eastern Conference Finals against them. Whereas this year, we're now 2-6-2 against them in ten matchups, with zero wins in five games in Philadelphia.

More to the heart of the matter though, the '00 team still had plenty of veterans who had been through the '94 and '95 playoff runs including Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Claude Lemieux. To paraphrase what Derek Jeter once said about the Yankees after a playoff loss a few years back...this isn't the same team. Only one defenseman - Colin White - ever played on a Cup-winning team, and among our top nine forwards only Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rolston have ever played for the Devils in one of their championship years and the latter two just do not look hungry anymore, even Elias has been largely invisible the last two postseasons though I do have a blind spot when it comes to him so I'll leave him alone.

Expounding on that point, some players really do keep the same drive and determination no matter how many championships they win. Even though Lemieux wasn't the best player by any means (especially on the '00 team) he had that same drive and determination through four Cup wins, including earlier in his career at Montreal and later in Colorado. Stevens and Daneyko were also of that mold, winning one was never enough. Whereas other players - say Jeff Friesen for example - fall off the face of the earth once they reach the mountaintop.

While Rolston, despite his two goals in Game 3 has largely coasted since signing a big-money contract with the Devils, Langenbrunner's fall in recent weeks has surprised me. I thought he was more in the Lemieux mold, especially after coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery in last year's playoffs. For whatever reason though, he's been out of it for weeks as evidenced by one play in Game 1 where he lost his stick in the attacking zone and instead of going to the bench for either a line change or a new stick he just stood in the attacking zone like he didn't know what to do for at least five seconds. I don't think he'll be traded (he probably has a no-trade anyway) but I wouldn't be entirely shocked if he lost the C on his shirt unless there's really something going on here none of us are privy to. Because his play and atitude have just been inexcusable over the last month.

To put it in a nutshell the difference between this team and the 2000 version is that team had players who wanted to win, this team doesn't have enough grit and enough players who will run through a wall to ensure success. Maybe Ilya Kovalchuk will, but can his style fit in with the rest of a successful team? We won't know until he actually goes to one. Brodeur's held up his end other than the disgusting third-period goal to Daniel Carcillo today that basically ended the game as a contest at 3-1 in the third, although you can make the case he was just tired of carrying the team on his back. I don't want to get into who's trying and who's not on an individual basis and I do think most of the team tries...to a point. To put it succinctly, there just aren't enough people out here who will throw a skate - the way Stevens once famously did towards Friesen - when things get tough.

Somewhat surprisingly you can even make that comparison with the two coaches. For whatever problems he had as the boss, Larry Robinson cared. He kicked a trash can in a famous out-of-character tirade in 2000 when the Devils fell behind to the Flyers in the aforementioned Eastern Conference Finals and resigned in his second tour of duty in 2006 basically because the Devils' inconsistency gave him a nervous breakdown. Maybe Jacques Lemaire cares too but something's changed in him since his first go-around in the mid-late '90's. Back then he didn't care who he ticked off, for his other problems near the end of his first tenure he at least cracked the whip when it was required.

Now? Well maybe being with an expansion team too long turned him patient to a fault. No matter how many times this team no-showed in the second half of the season, however many games they gave away with half-hearted efforts he would always preach the calm, positive approach. And there is a time and place for that, but there's also a time you need to put your foot down and that time long since passed for the Devils but no matter what - even in tonight's press conference - Lemaire's acting like he's in charge of the good ship lollipop. Even during the few occasions he did put his foot down, like with the late-season benchings of Rolston and Langenbrunner, he did it in a half-hearted way, claiming they were being sat for rest until it came out later it was more of a benching.

Maybe to a point it's bad luck that this team somehow managed to get the one team it matched up the worst with in the first round over the last three years - especially after we went for it the last game of the regular season all three times, but does this team really deserve any good luck? Not when you go 3-6 at home in the playoffs over the last three years, blow countless late leads (while never managing a similar last-minute revival themselves) and look like the District Five version of the movie Mighty Ducks on the power play. Not when you continue to believe your own press and think nothing's wrong even after months of inconsistent, gutless play.

And yes I do believe what I said in my last blog, that the Flyers are a good team themselves, certainly not fifteen points worse than us the way the standings say - although there's the Bill Parcells mindset that you are what you are - but in this age of parity let's be honest, this year's playoffs is showing there really isn't that much difference between almost all of the teams no matter where they finish in the standings. Still, you cannot allow yourself to go down meekly the way the Devils have the last two games in Philly, non-competing in the final period of Game 3 to the tune of being outshot 18-4 and the final two periods of Game 4. Especially after embarrassing playoff losses the last two years, at some point hunger has to kick in, right?

When you don't go to the net and fail to keep players out from the front of your net, that shows who wants it more. Compounding the effort level is the fact the Devils have managed to make another pedestrian goaltender look great in the playoffs. From Damian Rhodes in '98 to Kevin Weekes in '02 and Boucher now, this team does have a history of coming up small offensively in the playoffs most seasons but I can't say I'm entirely surprised here. We finished tied for 19th in the league offensively for a reason and have had one of the worst power plays in the league during the second half for a reason.

Look past the big names offensively like Kovalchuk, Elias, Zach Parise...this team just can't put pucks in the net. Even the final week of the season proved something of a harbinger - though the Devils won four of five, they managed to get shut down by the likes of Scott Clemmensen and Patrick Lalime. And for his part Boucher went into the playoffs with the high of beating the Rangers on sudden-death Sunday and confidence you wouldn't think he would have judging by his regular season numbers.

Maybe in a future blog I'll get into what of the many changes need to be made for this team going forward. Given the contract situation of most of the veterans the changes have to be more of a philosophical than actual roster changes but both need to happen for this team going forward. I'm sure there'll be plenty of time to go through all that after we go down on Thursday, or if we're lucky Sunday. I really don't want to see another elimination at home after our season has ended there the last three years (with me being in attendance the last two), on the other hand if it does end in Game 5, well this team will get the booing it so richly deserves after quitting on the season from mid-January on.

Either way don't expect to see me around for a few days, I'm just tired and weary of writing these post-mortems. Other than an overall recap which will probably come days or weeks (however long it takes me to get over this impending disaster) after the official funeral of the 2009-10 Devils, this is it for me for the season unless something dramatic happens this weekend. And anyone who believes that something dramatic is going to happen is either a better fan than I or just plain clueless.

BoNY Three Stars:
  1. Jeff Carter (two goals, one assist, +2 and 5 SOG)
  2. Brian Boucher (30/31 saves)
  3. Danny Briere (goal, two assists, +1)

1 comment:

Derek Felix said...

Can't say I blame ya.

The Puck Stops Here


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