Unbelievably just in the last eight days alone, the Devils have blown two leads in the last thirty seconds of regulation and a tie in the last thirty seconds of overtime - all at home to boot, a stretch that would defy credulity, if it wasn't our defense pulling off that impressive feat. Yet if these eight days were the only stretch where the Devils' defense wet their pants when the game was on the line, you could write it off as a bad stretch, a bug that they'd eventually get rid of. However, this has been a problem since last season's playoffs, where the Devils blew games (and eventually the series) to Carolina in every way imaginable.
Blowing a tie in last year's Game 4 with .2 seconds left and allowing two goals in the final eighty seconds of Game 7 turning a lead into a devastating loss cast a dark cloud over this franchise that only playoff success will alleviate. Because now every late blown lead exacerbates the ghosts that much more. Just off the top of my head here's a list of games (all since late January) that have added to the late-game angst around the Rock:
1/29 - Devils lead Toronto 4-2, blow it in the final five minutes before winning in OT
1/31 - Devils lead LA 2-1 with under a minute and a half to go and then give up two goals in a situation eerily similar to Game 7
2/8 - Devils lead Flyers 2-0 late in the second period before blowing that one
3/2 - Devils lead Sharks 4-0 before giving up three third-period goals and reminding us of the lousy late-game hockey we didn't have to see during the Olympic break
3/25 - Devils blow three leads against the Rangers including the final one with under half a minute remaining, lose in a shootout
3/30 - Devils blow a scoreless tie against the Bruins in the last half minute of overtime
4/2 - Devils blow a 1-0 lead against the Hawks in the final twenty seconds
One common denominator I've harped on has been the absence of Paul Martin on the ice during these critical late-game situations, obviously the first couple of those games he missed when he was on the shelf but including Game 7 last year I really can't think of one instance where he was on the ice late. Tonight followed the same pattern with Andy Greene and Mike Mottau on the ice in those final seconds as another Devils lead evaporated, although Jacques Lemaire's forward line choice was even more bizarre, as he sent Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk...and Vladimir Zharkov on the ice for that last shift.
What's wrong with having one of our best lines out there? Nothing except for the fact Elias can't win faceoffs if it came to another late-game icing (not that anyone else was tonight either), Kovalchuk is bad in his own zone and Zharkov is bad away from his own zone. True, Zharkov had an assist on Kovalchuk's first period goal that gave the Devils that lead and played a mostly effective sixteen plus minutes but still...I couldn't help but think the only reason to have him and that line out there was to get Zharkov his first NHL goal finally, and that was a colossal mistake if that was indeed the thinking. Sure enough, that line couldn't clear a puck and eventually Kris Versteeg threw one on net that glanced off of Mottau's skate and in with just twenty-six seconds left.
Lemaire's shootout order was almost as bizarre, as he put Zach Parise second, instead of his customary first or the closer's role of third and put Jamie Langenbrunner leadoff in his place, the same Langenbrunner that was outright skipped in the Devils' last shootout. Both Langenbrunner and Parise were stoned by the Hawks' Antti Niemi and Johnathan Toews scored on Martin Brodeur, giving the Hawks a 1-0 lead going into the final shot, to be taken by...Kovalchuk. Yes, the same Kovalchuk that was also passed over in that last shootout against the Rangers and who historically is just not good on breakaways. Sure enough, he got stopped too and the game ended with that last save by Niemi.
Still, as much as I want to bag on a defense that let's face it, just isn't clutch (Jennings Trophy or not) - you have to put some blame on the offense too. Against a team that had lost three of its last four games to Columbus and St. Louis with a depleted defense that has both Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson on the shelf, the Devils really sustained little attack after the first period. Despite his nearly forty goals on the season, Parise's gone through a rough stretch lately and couldn't even put one in an empty net when he blocked an attempted clear by Niemi - who had wandered way out of his net - but by the time Parise could retrieve the puck and put a shot on goal, three Blackhawks had converged on the crease and the play died there.
For his part, Brodeur really couldn't have been asked to do more although his own mishandled clearing nearly led to a goal in the first period if not for a timely Martin Skoula block. Brodeur was in the zone stopping the puck though, and when he made a terrific glove save off a deflection with just over three minutes left I thought he was going to get the shutout, just as I thought we were in good shape with five minutes left in Game 7. I guess I should learn by now that there are no done deals with this Devils defense.
Does it really matter now that Kovalchuk got his 40th goal of the season at 5:49 of the first (assisted by both Zharkov and Elias) or that the Devils for the most part actually played a good game and the point they did get put them in front of Pittsburgh again on a tiebreaker with just five games left for each team? Not when the same problem that has plagued this franchise for nearly a year keeps getting worse and worse by the day. Despite the talent on this team, the fact they're 6-0 against the Penguins and have beaten other good teams like the Caps, Sharks and Wings, how can you really have any confidence in them to do anything in the playoffs? When they're 12-15-6 in their last 33 games and every single late lead is an adventure?
Just another couple of random comments before I close...one as badly as I criticized the refs three nights ago, where the heck were they tonight?! Not a single penalty was called in sixty-five minutes of play, I can't remember the last time that happened. I guess the refs are going on strike and don't want to earn a paycheck? So much for the 'new NHL standard' since basically they've become spectators at our games.
Two, a tip of the cap to one of my favorites on the other side (no, not John Madden - who did get a deserved round of applause when he was announced in the starting lineup), forward/defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. After playing forward for most of the season, he's been switched back to defense due to the Blackhawks' injuries down the stretch and played a whopping 25:38 - second only to Duncan Keith, and had a team-leading five shots on net including a couple of really good chances that Brodeur did well to stop. Big Buff, as he's called, also had the primary assist on the Versteeg goal that sent the Rock into Vietnam-style flashbacks once again.
And guess how the Devils get to spend the rest of their night and early morning? Catching a red-eye (yet again) to Carolina. Can't this league ever give us a road game down there where we're not playing a home game the night before?! This is the fourth time in a row over two regular seasons we've had to play them on the road the night after a home game, which is a severe disadvantage. If we have to continue to take red-eyes there, can Gary Bettman at least make them play at home and come up here the next night once?
Oh well, never fear Devils fans...there's always baseball season. Oh wait, that only benefits those of us who are Yankees fans, it'll be just more of the same for us Mets fans. More Groundhog Days.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Antti Niemi (32/33 saves)
- Dustin Byfuglien (assist, 5 SOG in 25:38)
- Martin Brodeur (25/26 saves)