This one hurts as much as a Zdeno Chara slapshot to the wrist. While the rival (and eighth-place) Rangers won in a shootout to move four points head of the Devils, New Jersey lost what felt like a microcosm of their entire season. There was the awful start, injuries to key players affecting the team and the Devils coming up just short of a tie game and a guaranteed point in overtime. Like I said, this one hurts. Some thoughts...
Fragile: It's a word Pete DeBoer used to describe his team after the Devils allowed three early goals despite the Bruins taking four penalties in five minutes AND Martin Brodeur stopping a penalty shot. It seemed a wildly appropriate description for a team that has been known to cave at the end of periods, surrender goals in bunches and lose their heads in their own zone. There's a reason why the Devils always seem to play better after DeBoer calls a timeout. He can read whether they need a kick in the ass or a moment to breathe and then suddenly, they look like a different team. It happened tonight and it's happened countless other times this season. The team's psyche is fragile and they don't have enough extraordinarily talented players on the roster to carry them through rough patches. Without Ilya Kovalchuk, it's a collection of "guys" -- some with high-quality talent, but most without. A "fragile" team combined with a limited roster is a bad combination and it's why they've gone one two very bad losing streaks this season. This is not a team that can answer the bell and fight through adversity, which is so strange since it's nearly the same team as last year's that basically made adversity its 24th man on the bench. THIS is where we're seeing and feeling the loss of Zach Parise, who's attitude, work ethic and willingness to buy in no matter what would drive the Devils through difficult times. Maybe Travis Zajac or Adam Henrique will get there some day, but they're not there now.
#WhereIsKovy: It's painfully clear how much the Devils miss Kovalchuk in the obvious ways, but it seems in every game he misses there's little things the Devils fail to execute and it leave's you asking, "Damn, where is Kovy?" Tonight, there were two small, but glaring examples. First, as pointed out by Steve Lepore (Puck The Media) on Twitter, the Bruins were able to aggressively attack the Devils players carrying the puck at the top of the zone on the power play. Normally, this is a job done (and done well) by Ilya Kovalchuk. He's excellent at picking spots for cross-ice passes and has no problem getting the puck deep when necessary. He also keeps the puck on a string, which often forces penalty killers to sit back and wait for Kovy to move the puck. This is why you'll sometimes see the puck go to and from Kovy four or five times during a possession on a power play without a shot. The killers respect Kovy, but usually only Kovy and if he's not on the ice, they attack, which led directly to two Bruins goals tonight. The second thing is a similar, but slightly different problem. The Devils have no one to carry the puck into the offensive zone, particularly on the man advantage. Marek Zidlicky can pull this off from time to time, but often when he's given room because of the way Kovy controls the play and directs the defense just with his movements. This is why you're seeing so many of the Devils' power plays stall out before, at and just after the blue line. They desperately miss Kovalchuk's puck possession and the space it creates at one of the busiest areas on the ice.
This isn't new: None of the problems the Devils faced tonight were due simply to Ilya Kovalchuk's absence. These have been issues all season, issues we've banged the drum about time after time and issues that won't go away this season. The Devils are often dreadful to start the first period. Sometimes, their goaltending or a goal from Kovalchuk will bail them out or DeBoer will call a timeout before things get out of hand. But sometimes you go down 3-0 in the first five minutes of the period and end up looking like (pardon the cliche) a bunch of chickens with your heads cut off. That last part is another season-long problem. The Devils have spent far too much time this year running around their own end. They often get caught staring at the puck, leading to open players on the backside or a trailer that enters the zone completely unchecked. The Devils could fight through those issues if they could score, but they have yet to find a way to consistently finish. For the four goals the Devils scored tonight, they left several more on the table -- including some before it got out of hand. All of these problems didn't manifest because Kovalchuk is hurt or when Martin Brodeur was on injured reserve. These have been issues since Game No. 1 against the Islanders and the Devils still haven't fixed them for longer than a game or two.
Tale of two streaks: The Devils' current eight-game losing streak is at the front of their descent from the playoff picture, but this current skid has taken on so much prominence because of a prior slide, particularly the Devils' 3-8-2 mark while Brodeur was on injured reserve. That losing streak started with a run of six winless games (five regulation losses, one SO loss) and ended with three straight losses. At the time Brodeur was hurt, the Devils were hanging out in the top four of the Eastern Conference after their red-hot start. Obviously they were destined to be a middle-to-bottom-of-the-playoff-picture team but still figured to linger in the top eight long enough to comfortably make the playoffs. When Marty returned, the Devils were still in the top eight and then won twice on March 21 and 23, the latter of which is the last time Kovalchuk was on the ice. Since then, it's been eight games without a victory and a slide to 10th place in the East. While losing streaks are impossible to avoid when you're a flawed team, two of them might be too much for the Devils to handle, regardless of how well they started.
Row, row, row: The Devils' least-favorite stat of the moment is not points, although that's not very favorable either. No, it's ROW, which stands for regulation and overtime wins. It's the second tiebreaker the NHL uses for playoff positioning -- a way of separating teams who pick up two points the normal way vs. those that do it in a skills competition. Unfortunately for the Devils, they trail each of the three teams directly in front of them in ROW. The 10th-place Devils currently have 13 ROW. Ahead of them in ninth place is the Jets, who have 19, the eight-place Rangers with 16 and the seventh-place Islanders with 17. The Devils have just eight games left, so you can count out catching the Jets. The Rangers are feasible, especially considering the two teams play twice in the final week. But this now means the Devils can't wait until the shootout to beat teams (which they can't really do anyway, but still). The Devils have to put a priority on getting wins before the skills competition while also hoping to erase a three- or four-win gap in just eight games. I'm no math major, but that seems difficult, especially considering the Devils also trail most of those teams in "points percentage," which is the first tiebreaker the NHL uses. Oh, and the Devils are four points out with eight to play and have to jump two teams to get into the playoffs. Yuck.
Notes: I hope the Andy Greene goal doesn't get lost in the shuffle. That was a textbook forecheck by the Devils and a beautiful pass from Adam Henrique to Green on the other end of the ice. Also, as NBC pointed out, Greene made a small, but noticeable move to buy himself just a couple more inches and seconds before snapping the shot off. A pretty, textbook play from start to finish. ... Can we all agree Patrik Elias has the yips? He's either freezing with the puck or missing wide almost every time he gets it in a scoring position. You hope that his "deflection" tonight gets him out of the funk, but I'm not sure if it will. ... Bryce Salvador got absolutely bodied by Jaromir Jagr on the Bruins' first goal. It was a shining example of two things: One, Jaggs can still play and can still play very well; Two, Salvador has very minimal upper-body strength, which is likely a result of the knee injury and back/shoulder injury he's currently playing through. ... The Devils might get sloppy. They might not finish often. But they do player their asses off 95 percent of the time. After the timeout tonight, they were all over the Bruins and were diving all over their zone trying to protect the net when Brodeur was out of position on one play. They also battled back from down 4-0 and were the better team for long stretches tonight. They play hard and they have skill, but they just can't seem to put it all together at once. ... Bravo, Stephen Gionta, for the clear-cut hit of the year. ... Steve Sullivan, c'mon man! You know better than to play the puck across the blue line like that on the power play. ... Speaking of "new(er)" Devils, I thought Matt D'Agostini played pretty well. He drew a penalty in the first, scored a goal in the third and was generally better overall than I've seen him since joining the Devils. ... Yeah, Johnny Boychuk, maybe you shouldn't take anymore penalty shots. ... How does Zdeno Chara just waltz into the crease on the Bruins' fourth goal? SOMEBODY put a body on him, no? Or a stick? Or a cross-check? Anything. ... Andrei Loktionov does about one thing per game that just makes me excited to watch him play a full season next year. Tonight it was that sick turn and backhander that deflected off the crossbar. What a play. ... Yeah, Anton Volchenkov is going to want to answer tomorrow's call with a 212 area code. Or maybe Shanny's got one one of those slick 646 codes? Time will tell. ... Speaking of Shanabans, doesn't someone think Tyler Seguin should at least get a phone call for his reckless elbow on Marek Zidlicky late in the third period? Just asking.