Their second half run had the team, the fans, everyone believing that the history could be made, culminating in a 14th straight playoff appearance. However, after dropping three of their last four games, those aspirations are barely clinging to life.
This potentially backbreaking run began with a loss in Ottawa to the Senators on St. Patrick’s Day. The Devils had luck on their side in the past, winning their past 2 games on March 17th with wins on their Retro Night last year against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the previous year versus the Chicago Blackhawks for Martin Brodeur’s record breaking 552nd win.
They couldn’t, however, get lightning to strike in the same spot three years in a row. Chris Neil netted a pair of goals including the game winner as the Senators rolled the Devils for the third time this season and second time in 9 days.
The following night, the Devils hosted their second (hopefully) annual Retro Night against the Washington Capitals.
In what head coach Jacques Lemaire defined as a “Must win” coming off the heels of the loss in Ottawa, the Devils came out strong, bringing the play to the Capitals. They just could not solve Michal Neuvirth, who stifled the Devils’ numerous attempts, 33 of them to be exact, earning his fourth shutout of the year. The bounces in this contest went the Caps’ way as Mike Knuble netted a pair of goals while on the flip side, the Devils could not catch a break including Ilya Kovalchuk being stopped twice on breakaways.
Following the game, players tried their best to put a positive tone in their post-game answers.
Kovalchuk said, “[going forward] We’ve got nothing to lose now. We have to win every game.”
Lemaire even said he thought the team had played a great game, their problem was when they created chances, they just could not bury the puck.
And even Rolston tried to be as positive as possible when he spoke to fans outside of the Prudential Center telling them, “We’ll find it, we have to. The goals will come.”
The Devils delivered on Rolston’s reassurance to the fans with their 3-0 victory in Columbus over the Blue Jackets on Sunday. David Clarkson netted two gritty goals, battling for position in front of goaltender Steve Mason both times. Nick Palmieri also scored after stealing the puck from Kris Russell and then banking a shot off Russell’s skate that found its way through Mason’s five-hole. Brodeur did his part stopping all 13 shots he had faced to register his fifth shutout of the season.
It seemed as though the Devils had finally gotten themselves back on track as the continued on a pivotal 4 game road trip where they would essentially need to win all three games before a certain must win showdown with the 8th place Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
For the first fifteen minutes of their matchup against the Boston Bruins, the Devils seemed to carry the momentum they had built in Ohio on Sunday. Kovalchuk converted one-timer on an amazing pass from Mattias Tedenby, who threaded the needle between Tim Thomas and the Boston defenders. The goal game a mere eight seconds into their first power play of the game and gave the Devils an early lead, something they wanted to continue to build on from Sunday.
As soon as the Devils took their first penalty, however, the pressure began to mount, and it showed in their performance on the ice. Even though they killed off the man-advantage with little incident, however, just moments after Dainius Zubrus was released from the box, Shawn Thornton tipped home a Dennis Seidenberg shot from the point to level the score.
The Devils battled hard but just could not find the edge to regain the momentum they had built off the opening faceoff. They struggled to contain the Bruins attack and found themselves being called for penalties, four in the second period alone. Zedeno Chara would make them pay as he ripped a one-timer past Brodeur for the go-ahead goal. The play was set up beautifully by David Krejci lifting Patrik Elias’ stick, clearing the lane for Milan Lucic to feed Chara with the pass.
Frustration could be seen on the faces of the Devils as well as their body language and actions on the ice. Zubrus was tagged with his second penalty during the second peri0od and he was not hesitant to voice his frustrations towards the referee as he headed to the penalty box.
There was no greater sign of frustration than that of Ilya Kovalchuk following Lucic’s 3rd period goal to give Boston the late two-goal lead. Kovalchuk had failed on a one-timer right in front of Thomas which would have leveled the two teams on a play almost identical to the one he converted on during the Devils’ first period power play. On the bench, Kovalchuk could be seen yelling and turning red with frustration.
What the team may not have been aware of, but the fans watching on TV certainly were, were the scores of the games from around the league, none of which fell in the Devils’ favor.
Buffalo had pulled off an impressive 2-0 victory in Montreal behind the stellar goaltending of Ryan Miller, the Carolina Hurricanes had held off the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers pitched a shutout of their own, defeating the Florida Panthers 1-0.
These games struck heavy blows to the Devils’ playoff hopes as they fell behind the Sabres by 9 points and the Rangers by 12 with only 9 games remaining.
Hope was a good thing for the Devils, as long as they continued to play hard and the teams around them did their parts in keeping those playoff dreams alive. Once those teams, however, began to earn points when playoff-hopeful teams needed them not to, the pressure to keep pace started to increase.
That pressure is what has plagued the Devils’ confidence over the past two weeks, and may have ultimately cost them a chance to earn the coveted playoff berth.
What cannot be lost in the disappointment, should the Devils not qualify for the post-season, is the fact that they have generated one of the most improbable second half turnarounds in NHL history. They went from being dead last in the league by a wide margin, to coming within a few wins here and there of earning a chance to fight for the Stanley Cup.
It is a testament to the coaches for inspiring the team to believe. It is a testament to the players for not giving up on another and carrying each other through their darkest times, and it is a testament to the fans, who stood behind them throughout this wild ride of a season.
With 9 games to play, the Devils may not have a realistic chance at reaching the playoffs, but they can still finish showing the league that they are as dangerous as ever if they can finish at or above the .500 mark.
That would be an incredibly high note, and a strong message to hold onto heading into next season.