In the third period of a game against the Buffalo Sabres on December 29th, the Devils were locked in a 3-3 tie with the Buffalo Sabres trying to extend a winning streak to 6 games. In transition, the Devils top scorer, Taylor Hall, made a play that only superstars can, batting a puck in the air to himself in stride and finishing off a beautiful goal on the break. The Devils were up 4-3 late in the game against a bad team and were poised to push into the lead in the Metropolitan Division by two points. Then, a challenge was issued by Buffalo, and while we didn’t know it at the time, the seeds of a complete implosion were planted. The refs, after an extended review, would rule that Taylor Hall was not in possession of the puck as he crossed the line and apparently had his rear skate lifted an eyelash off the ice, making him offside. No goal. The Devils would go on to lose the game in overtime. Seemingly a blip at that moment, as the team ended up in first with the point from the overtime loss, but now an ominous harbinger in retrospect.
What has followed has been a cornucopia of bad bounces, bad refereeing, waved-off goals for inane reasons, blown leads, clanged posts, injuries, and just the right amount of poor play to bring a once euphoric season crashing to the ground. As the Devils tumble into the thankfully-arriving All-Star Break, an almost comical wave of carnage has hit their season over the past four weeks. Their best player and potential Hart Trophy candidate Hall has been sidelined with a hand injury of some sort. Their starting goaltender was first hit with an illness and shortly after sidelined with a lower body injury. In between those events for the starter, the backup goaltender went down with an injury too. Marcus Johansson’s series of unfortunate events continued with another concussion on a brutal elbow from Brad Marchand. The team has had crucial goals in three separate games (games they ended up losing in OT) waived off for specious reasoning or terribly-written rules/review policies. A team scored on them with 6 skaters and a goaltender on the ice without a call. They’ve biffed looks at open nets, they’ve hit a silly number of posts, they’ve passed when they should have shot in all sorts of situations, and had at least 3 (by my count) goals against them find their way in after a mostly harmless shot deflected off a Devil’s stick. By a combination of inadequate play, poor timing, and some sort of voodoo curse, the wheels have come off.
With almost every team around them winning last night and the Devils enduring their second straight home shutout loss and fourth regulation loss overall, their distance clear of the playoff bubble now sits at just one point. This dire standings situation has been a more recent development, as the ship looked like it might be righted after back to back quality wins over the Islanders and Capitals to snap their previous 6-game winless stretch. I mean, less than two weeks ago the team had an opportunity to go up 8(!) points on the first team out of the playoffs if they took care of business against the Flyers. They lost, and then kept right on losing and now they are one point from the abyss, very much in the thick of a dogfight, and a further fall feels damn near inevitable at this low moment, rational or not.
Now, the Metropolitan Division has been a clustered mess for a majority of this year and every team has seemingly hit the skids on the road to hoplessness, only to recover and jump right back in the fight. The Pens had a disastrous first 30 games. The Flyers lost 10 freaking games in a row like a month and a half ago. Islanders and Rangers fans, now currently one point out of playoff position, have seemed ready to tear the whole damn thing down at various points. None of those teams, save perhaps the currently-fading Hurricanes, are carrying the recent baggage that the Devils are, though. Outside of the perpetually-hopeless Sabres and the aforementioned Canes, the Devils are carrying the longest playoff drought in the entire league. A few weeks ago, they seemed poised to get themselves into an un-[bleep]-upable playoff position with just a few more decent weeks of hockey. Then they summarily [bleep]ed it all up.
“Maybe it doesn’t work out in the end, as is the risk when you buy into a team’s success, but I’m now fairly confident in saying this team isn’t just a house of cards.” – Some A**hole
I wanted to believe in this team. I did believe in this team. My belief has been rewarded with swift and severe punishment. And that’s what makes this spiral hurt so much more. If only I had held out a couple weeks more. If only I had continued anticipating the drop of that other shoe, maybe this would suck a little bit less. If I continued to expect this team to go down in flames, when they inevitably did, the reaction could be “Well... yeah,” instead of “@%$#@& @#$#$#^ SON OF A &^% ^@#( %!^@&.” But they sucked me in. They amassed a great record in their first three months, they were beating good teams, and while they had been the beneficiaries of some good fortune early on, they were really starting to look the part of a quality team both on the ice and in the underlying numbers. Then: the past four weeks.
All the team had to do, based on the position they were in after their post-Christmas win over Detroit, was get mediocre results the rest of the way, and they were pretty much in. Instead, we’ve been treated to Buffalonian levels of ineptitude, with the team picking up 7 points in 12 games, a 48-point pace over 82 games. The sad point is I don’t think they’ve necessarily deserved those levels of results, playing fine to even good hockey for parts of that stretch. But in the end, this is a results business and the Devils have blown several leads and squandered their share of opportunities to overcome this run of bad luck.
I want to believe they can right the ship and get things back on track, but man is that trust going to be tough to build up again. Fool me once, etc. etc. Hope has been largely eradicated by this nosedive, and is now replaced with the more par-for-the-course feeling of crippling dread. It was fun to watch this team like R And if this team cannot figure out a way to return to the win column in short order after the All-Star Break, the depressing – but extremely familiar in recent Devils seasons – “acceptance of a doomed season” could follow very quickly. Maybe this is an irrational over-correction from my feelings just five weeks ago, but going out on a limb has gone very poorly for me and at some point, self-preservation is as crucial for the sports fan as allowing oneself to hope. And it’s about time to re-revise my expectations back to something closer to “this team just isn’t there yet” if only so I can stop ripping my hair out watching them. At best, I’ll say maybe it isn’t time to abandon ship just yet, but I’m gathering my important belongings and giving the life boats the side-eye in preparation. Perhaps a bit cynical, but ultimately necessary for my sanity.