The hottest question on the lips of New Jersey hockey fans is “What’s happened to the Devils?”
Anyone that saw the Minnesota Wild game Tuesday night seeking that insight came away still scratching his or her head.
One answer echoed through the hallways of the Prudential Center long before the game started: A lack of confidence has infected the entire team. Marty Brodeur, the long-time leader of the team, was quoted saying, “I’m not winning. I don’t deserve to be in there right now.”
Coach Jacques Lemaire named Johan Hedberg his starting goalie.
Since his return behind the bench, Lemaire has been merciless in his criticism of the club’s willingness to compete. He has gone public with his bewilderment over the way the players have “forgotten how to play the game, all the players including Kovalchuk and Brodeur.”
This game started out no different. Trapped in their own end for most of the first period, the team managed its first and only shot on net at 10:25 of the frame. The glaring weakness in their offensive game, the inability of the defensemen to make that crucial initial pass out of their zone, was once again in play. Sending two forwards deep on the forecheck early in the game, the Wild created frequent turnovers and several good scoring chances.
The first goal came at 11:38 when Ilya Kovalchuk skated back deep in his zone, carried the puck to his own blue line, swerved to avoid Cal Clutterbuck and tripped over the blue line. Startled by this mistake, Anssi Salmella whirled to defend against Clutterbuck’s advance and immediately fell on his butt. Clutterbuck came unimpeded to the net and sniped the top corner on Hedberg’s short side. The Wild led 1-0. For the rest of the period, the Devils struggled to stay alive.
Interviewed on the bench during the period, Lemaire complained: “We are not moving our legs. We are throwing the puck anywhere on the ice. You can’t play like that.”
Between periods, he must have pulled out all the stops to turn the team around. The Devil team took the ice in a fever, resulting in the complete reversal of what we had seen in the opening stanza. At the three-minute mark, Kovalchuk scored on a blistering shot from the hash marks. Eight minutes in, the shots were 9-1 in favor of the Devils. Despite several golden opportunities, the forwards could not put the puck in the net. That said, the team dominated the Wild, outshooting them 14-4 and whetted the appetite of the fans for a torrid third period.
Fate, however, would intervene. After a first minute of furious action in the Wild’s zone, Clayton Stoner stepped over the red line and dumped the puck in to relieve the pressure. The disk hit Kovy’s stick, flew up against the glass and hit a stanchion. In the meantime, Hedberg moved behind his net to stop the puck and set it up for his defenseman. The rebound off the stanchion completely changed the direction of the clear, and it headed directly towards the Devils net. In what felt like a slow-motion sequence, the puck skittered across the ice while Hedberg scrambled to get back to his crease. As the crowd gasped, the puck beat the goalie to the net, and Stoner had his first NHL goal. Wild 2 – Devils 1. WATCH in video below.
The Wild then found their legs. The wind went out of the Devils’ sails, and the game ended with that exact score. The same combination of snake-bitten shooters, weak performances offensively by their entire blue line crew and a few crazy bounces had done the Devils in.
The only positive in the game for New Jersey was the play of the Clarkson-Sestito-Pelley line who brought sustained energy and some good offensive zone action on every shift.