Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Devils hit All-Star break with a thud

With only one game tonight before the league descends on Ottawa for the All-Star exhibition weekend, the Devils (like most of the NHL) played their final game before the break last night. Unfortunately for the men in red and white, the last week hasn't gone so well for them. Things have gone steadily downhill since the third period against Boston last Thursday, where the Devils surrendered a 1-0 lead and gave up three quick goals en route to a 4-1 loss. A desultory afternoon loss to the Flyers on Saturday by the same score drove home once again the point that the Devils can't play with the big boys, since they're just 1-6 combined against the Bruins, Flyers and Rangers - arguably the East's top three teams.

Tuesday's match against the Sabres - a talented team struggling with injuries and dissapointments and mired in a twelve-game road losing streak - was supposed to be a get-well card for the team before their week-long break but the script got complicated even before the game when the Sabres welcomed back not one, but two veteran blueliners to their lineup (Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr) off of injury. Embattled goalie Ryan Miller, who had allowed five goals or more in each of his previous four starts, stopped 27 of 28 Devils shots in regulation and overtime last night and eventually the last three shots of the shootout.

Counterpart Martin Brodeur would only need to make thirteen saves, by contrast, but allowed a freak goal off the boards to Jordan Leopold in the first period. Then in the shootout, Jason Pominville's wrister tied it up when just one more save would have won it and then after Adam Henrique was stopped by Miller, Nathan Gerbe scored the winner - condemning the Devils to their third straight home defeat in the middle of a six-game homestand, with the Rangers looming after the break next Tuesday.

Worse than the three-game losing streak and dropping back into a tie for the final playoff spot, the Devils announced today that there is no timetable for Travis Zajac to return from the achillies injury that's plagued him all year. Now missing Zajac and defenseman Henrik Tallinder long-term from a team that was already going to be on the bubble to make the playoffs, the Devils face a potential crisis over the next two weeks when they have to play not only the Rangers twice in the next six games, but also the Flyers, Penguins and the surprising St. Louis Blues along with the struggling Canadiens.

Of less concern right now, both Henrique and Adam Larsson will miss All-Star weekend due to various 'ailments' - with Larsson resting a sore wrist (and staying in NJ for treatment instead of going back to Sweden over the break) and Henrique supposedly tweaking his groin last night, in a game where he not only finished the contest but took the final shot of the shootout. Without Henrique or Larsson, the Devils won't have a single All-Star weekend representative, and something tells me that's just the way GM Lou Lamoriello likes it.

The fact that players are either held out of All-Star weekend or decline themselves, like the Caps' star Alex Ovechkin, only serves to make the festivities even more unneccesary. Or at the very least, ill-timed. At this point, the NHL might as well hold their All-Star game after the season the way the NFL does with the Pro Bowl (or at least did before stuffing it in between the Conference title games and the Super Bowl). Not that I'd ever want to see an artificial solution to gin up the All-Star game the way baseball does by tying home-field advantage of the World Series to the winner of the ASG.

With all this bad news around the Devils, it's easy to overlook the good - like Alexei Ponikarovsky scoring a goal in his first game as a Devil, or the near-imminent return of Andy Greene to the lineup. Not to mention the improved play of Brodeur. However, the offense scoring a goal a game in each of the last three is just not acceptable, and that average likely won't improve against Henrik Lundqvist next week. Neither is the flat way the Devils came out in the first period last night - freak goal or not, the team was asleep in the opening twenty minutes after having lost two in a row.

Things will have to improve for the Devils to get back on the beam, before this slump continues and people start speculating on how far out of the playoffs we need to be before the team should trade star winger (and UFA-to be) Zach Parise.

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