Sunday, January 2, 2011

Devils take one step forward, two back over New Year's weekend

Despite their loss on Wednesday to the Rangers, for the first time in weeks the Devils played a competitive game and Friday they followed that up with a nice 3-1 win over Atlanta where ex-Thrashers Johan Hedberg and Ilya Kovalchuk played key roles, with the latter getting a crucial breakaway goal late in the third period to sew it up, a rare good moment 5-on-5 this season for the one-time goalscoring threat. With those two games under their belt it looked like they were starting to make progress under Jacques Lemaire, who did caution that it would be a long process and pointed out that Atlanta was playing a second game in two nights on the road.

Lo and behold, the next night we would be the team playing a second game on the road, at Carolina of all places which is par for the course considering we always seem to travel there on the back end of two games in two nights. In less than fifteen minutes, the Devils proceeded to throw away whatever good came from the prior two games as they fell behind 4-0 with Martin Brodeur getting pulled in what seemed like record time (for him) after giving up three in the first eight minutes. Brodeur stormed off the ice and didn't talk to the media afterwards, in both respects very unlike the affable legend. Then again his play on the ice has been very un-Brodeur like this year, as his record stands at 5-18-1 with a 3.15 GAA and .882 save percentage and he's been pulled several times already this season.

Sure, a lot of the Devils' problems in allowing goals can be blamed on a green defense which includes players like Anssi Salmela, Matt Corrente and Mark Fayne who are simply not NHL players, to be kind. Overall backup Johan Hedberg's numbers aren't much better than Brodeur's, as he has a 5-7-1 record, 2.93 GAA and .899 save percentage although he's been strong in most of his limited starts, like the previous day against Atlanta. However Hedberg does seem to struggle in relief and actually got saddled with the loss in Carolina when the Devils put on a late spurt to get three goals in an eventual 6-3 loss.

That said, Brodeur's play has been disconcerting as he's allowed seemingly at least one bad goal a game. Not to mention for a player who's played in big games his whole NHL career, it's gotta be hard to get up the motivation at 38 years of age to just play out the string, especially after you have all the individual records and can't even chase that for motivation anymore. Whether Marty's disinterested, playing hurt (since he did miss the better part of a month with an 'elbow bruise') or just plain showing the effects of his age, it's clear time is running out for the eventual Hall of Famer in a figurative sense, though he'll surely finish out his contract and be here going into next year.

Not that he or the defense is alone in poor performances though, even though the offense finally managed to put together back-to-back three goal games, before that they'd scored a grand total of one goal in each of their prior six contests. Kovalchuk continues to be a dissapointment, bloating his plus-minus to a ghastly -28 while still being under double digits in goals. Sulking captain (who decided not to come out for the second star after a rare good game Friday) Jamie Langenbrunner has four goals and fourteen points in 30 games, with a -14 to go along with it.

And our power play, which ironically had been the only aspect of our game that had signs of life under John MacLean, has gone back to dreadful under Lemaire in no small part due to the fact that he's replaced Travis Zajac - one of the few forwards actually playing well - with Kovy as the power play quarterback. Also, despite spending most of the season getting significant time on the power play, David Clarkson has managed to not put up a single point on the man advantage.

If that wasn't enough bad news for Devil fans, more contreversy erupted last week when Brian Rolston was placed on re-entry waivers and still went unclaimed, despite the fact any team could have had him for only half of his $5 million cap hit. I admit being surprised that the Isles didn't put in a claim for him after trading James Wisniewski and just before also dumping Dwayne Roloson. Apparently they're still above the salary floor, but only because of bonuses (and likely not all of them will be hit). Either way, Rolston's been in limbo the last few days and is now starting to bellyache about it, complaining that GM Lou Lamoriello made a mistake by not fixing the cap situation before the season and bemoaned being the 'sacrificial lamb' of the team.

Well gee Brian, I might have a little more sympathy for you if you hadn't you know, sucked as a Devil. In his prior two seasons since returning as a FA signing, Rolston managed 32 points in 64 games and 37 in 80, hardly great numbers for a supposed top six forward making $5 million and this year's been his worst yet with two goals, three assists and a -12 in 21 games. Of course it has to be disconcerting to realize you're so bad teams won't even claim you at half your contract value. Yes I feel for the man's family, they have nothing to do with this and they're getting affected by his limbo status but that's it. He certainly doesn't deserve any personal sympathy.

At least the Devils could finally bring a dreadful 2010 to a close, which saw them go 30-42-8 in the calendar year, including last season's playoff exit. Obviously there'll be no playoffs this year but it would be nice to see a modicum of consistency and actually resembling an NHL team for more than a one or two-game stretch, followed by another seven games of awfulness. Incredibly, my Jets still have more wins than the Devils do (11-10).

Too bad 2011 began much the way 2010 stayed for most of the year, but the team's next chance to start taking steps forward comes Tuesday against the Wild.

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