Things were supposed to be different for the New Jersey Devils. Sutter got angry after the loss against the Rangers. The players continue to talk about how they weren't aggressive enough, weren't playing with urgency, and just plain weren't playing well enough. Sutter had a 30 minute meeting with the team before a full practice yesterday where a "message" was sent, and there was a full skate before today's game. You'd get the impression that we wouldn't see a performance like we saw the Devils threw out against the Rangers. (Note: All links go to Gulitti's reports)
I can safely say that we didn't see a performance like that, we saw something far, far worse. A 6-1 horror of a loss to the Penguins, to be exact. The only positive takeaway from tonight was that Toronto did the Devils a favor by beating Philadelphia so the Devils remain atop the Atlantic.
And it came against an opponent who capitalized where they could and then some. The Penguins convincingly, decisively, and confidently won 6-1; highlighted by not one, but two instances of two quick goals. Evgeni Malkin showed off why he's a MVP candidate, he was a monster. Guys like Matt Cooke, Bill Guerin, and Maxime Talbot gave the Devils all sorts of problems. Kris Letang and Sergei Gonchar Marc-Andre Fleury got some work early, but not a whole lot to worry about as time went on.
Honestly, though, the Penguins didn't have to play that well. They would have won big with a lesser performance. The Devils were just that abjectly bad tonight after the first period. In the first period, they got stunned by 2 quick goals, but they didn't waiver. They pulled one back when Brian Gionta picked a rebound from a Dainius Zubrus shot in the air to beat Marc-Andre Fleury. Not long after, John Madden hit a frightening shot off the post; and the next shift, Paul Martin was unlucky to hammer a rebound home off a Travis Zajac shot.
But after that, the scoring chances ceased - the Malkin goal on the power play was a backbreaker and the rest of the goals were just gravy. The Penguins played very, very well and Frank's take at Pensburgh will be deservingly positive. They are the anti-Devils right now. Pittsburgh is thriving whilst the Devils continue to dig themselves in deeper.
From the second period on, the Devils were just terrible. The offense had trouble keeping the puck in Pittsburgh's end for more than 30 seconds, constantly giving up the puck to a vigorous Pittsburgh defense. Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner were largely invisible. I think Parise was most notable when Mark Eaton hit him in the mouth with a stick (and of course play continued). Brian Rolston was a non-factor. David Clarkson did little but fight a guy that meant nothing to the scoreboard. Dainius Zubrus and Brian Gionta actually did something; but it wasn't enough. Good thing Patrik Elias didn't play tonight; it would have been a collossal waste of his time and an unnecessary risk to his legs.
The Devils were punchless again on the power play, and the Devils penalty kill was frail again. Pittsburgh's "meh" power play looked strong with 2 goals against a unit that did a lot of puck watching. Martin Brodeur didn't have one of his legendary "Nothing short of a miracle will beat me tonight" nights. And the biggest disappointment were the defense.
They were standing around with a man advantage. They were standing around with a man disadvantage. They were standing around on even strength. They only moved in an attempt to keep up with the Penguins and it was ineffective! The Penguins showed off a lot of flair and slick moves because they had the confidence the Devils' defense wouldn't stop it. and they didn't. At times the blueline, from Paul Martin all the way down to Niclas Havelid, played like mannequins. Like pylons. Like paper tigers. Like statues. Not even a super-robotic-goalie that combined the best talents of Ken Dryden, Terry Sawchuk, Viktor Tikhonov, and Georges Vezina could have held up with the Devils' defensive performance tonight.
Again, the Devils conceeded over 35 shots. Again, the Devils gave up the neutral zone. Again, the Devils faltered against a team they have beaten a number of times earlier this season. Again, the Devils made a lot of noise and spoke plenty of words about how they recognize how bad they have been and how they have to do better and how they really need to step it up.
Friday's game against Tampa Bay is now a must-win. I never thought it would come to that a few weeks ago, but there we are. A home game against a golf-course bound team is now a must-win. To end the slump. To end the now-six game losing streak. To end the despair. To end the doubts about this team. To end the horrible fact that New Jersey has been throwing away all the good work they have done since January 1 within the last 2 weeks.
What should Sutter do? Sutter has tried extra rest, he has tried defending the players a bit, he has tried blasting the players in themedia, he has tried being stern with them, and he has even tried yelling at a referee on the ice. I have no idea what Sutter should do next, really. It's his responsibility; but it's also the players.
What I do know is the bottom line: The time for words and statements like "We have to play better" is over. I apologize for the wall of text; but with 5 games left in the season, now is the time to actually play better.