The Devils are now down 2-0 in their first playoff series in five years after being demolished twice in two games at home by the Rangers. After ending the regular season on the highest of notes in a comeback OT thriller headlined by a game-winning goal from a brand-new rookie dynamo, this was not the expected trajectory for a team that broke the franchise wins record. The Devils look like a shell of the team that shattered expectations in the regular season, turning their home arena into a torture chamber for their fans in back-to-back 5-1 slaughters that have ended with legions of smirking Rangers fans twisting the knife on Devils fans as they dejectedly made for the exits.
The Devils, starting with their head coach and going right down through the whole roster, look like a team that has so bought into the narrative that playoff hockey is a different sport that they decided they needed to actually learn how to play a different sport instead of the one they happened to be pretty good at all season. Game one looked like a team with some jitters who just got burned on special teams and was searching too hard for the perfect scoring chance. A disappointment, but an understandable result for a team with a number of guys getting their first taste of playoff action. Instead of it serving as a wake up call, though, the Devils seemed to double down on all the wrong things.
The response to that performance by Lindy Ruff was to make adjustments that were baffling at best and actively harmful to the team’s chances at worst. Against a team that lives off of power play opportunities, Ruff not only promoted Miles Wood—a guy who takes the most penalties of any forward on the team—to the third line, he also inserted Brendan Smith—the defenseman who takes the most penalties on the team—into the lineup. Both players took minor penalties in the first 30 minutes of the game, with Wood’s minor in the second leading to a critical goal that gave the Rangers the lead permanently. Game two was an unmitigated disaster, a team so worried about getting physical, they abandoned any semblance of their identity as a team that never stops pushing the pace and uses their speed and skill to get their opponents off balance. The Devils took four minor penalties in the first 40 minutes and, sure enough, it burned them, leading directly to the second and third goals for New York.
A common retort to last night’s performance will be that the Devils were so outclassed that it didn’t much matter what lineup decisions the coach made in his bottom six and third pair. Maybe, but when a coach promotes a fourth liner who took a damaging penalty early in game one and also inserts his 8th-best defenseman with a reputation for being more physical into the lineup, he is sending a message about what he wants from his players. “Be physical. Don’t let these guys push you around.” The Devils matched the Rangers hit for hit, putting up 39 of them on the night. They took 46 more PIMs than they had in any game during the regular season. The Devils might have shown they are not afraid of the Rangers, but they also got their asses firmly handed to them on the scoreboard. The Devils are playing as the worst version of themselves and the pied piper behind the bench is leading them right in that direction.
When Luke Hughes buried that OT goal in game 82 of the regular season, I was sure he had forced Lindy Ruff’s hand. “I’m too much of a weapon for you to leave me in the scratch suite, old man.” There aren’t a ton of defenders alive with the type of potential that Hughes has, and his first couple performances showed that he was anything but overmatched on NHL ice. Ever the forward-thinker, though, Ruff just could not abide the risk of his new young defender making a mistake. He had to play his more experienced mistake-makers. Even if I hated that game one decision, though, I could buy it as a rehashing of the conventional wisdom that you stick with the guys who brought you.
No, the truly baffling move was removing one of his top-four mainstays the entire year in Jonas Siegenthaler (who was fourth on the team in 5v5 xGF% in game one and was only on for a single goal against in all situations), and inserting not his young potential star, but his veteran grinder 6th/7th defenseman. The Devils were in need of an offensive spark as much as anything else after game one, and Ruff’s answer was not the potential superstar that fell in his lap the last week of the season, but the guy with zero (0) goals and five (5) points in 60 games this season. When Cale Makar fell in Jared Bednar’s lap in Colorado before game three of the first round for Colorado in 2019, do you know what he did? Yup, he put him directly into the lineup and never ever took him out ever again. Maybe Luke Hughes isn’t Cale Makar, but he’s a hell of a lot closer to Cale Makar than Brendan Smith is, and he’s a hell of a lot harder for a team like the Rangers to gameplan for.
Beyond the lineup decisions, the Devils just look like a team ill-prepared for these games by their coaching staff. They are getting eaten alive on special teams in both directions and they are being way too predictable in their passing and their breakouts, frequently being funneled into the exact spots the Rangers are hoping to force them. At least in game one, the process seemed to be there to some extent at 5v5, but that completely evaporated in game two, where the Devils got almost nothing going at 5v5 the entire game. The Devils mainly needed to get crisper in their decision making and avoid overpassing based on their game one performance. They instead responded with truculence, which earned them the same final score with a much more convincing beatdown in the run of play attached to it.
How the Devils respond now will go a long way in defining their season. Fair or not, getting unceremoniously drummed out of the playoffs by your most hated rival will undo a lot of goodwill built up over 82 games. If they are going to go down—probably now close to a 90% likely scenario based on the 0-2 hole they are in—they at least need to go down swinging. They assembled pretty much the worst two-game opening to a playoff series conceivable and thoroughly torched any previously held expectations. In a way, they should feel freed by that catastrophe, though. Nowhere to go but up from here, fellas, given that the trajectory is currently set to a sweep.
Can Lindy Ruff maybe take a cue from that state of affairs and try and swing for the fences with his most talented lineup, concerns about youth be damned? Vitek Vanecek, bless his heart, has allowed nine goals in two games. Certainly not all his fault, but he and his .827 save percentage have been anything but sharp. Maybe give your young goalie in Akira Schmid who had the team’s best save percentage this season a bite at the apple. Tell your skaters to play 2022-23 Devils hockey, which is to say push the pace, be aggressive, force turnovers, and take over the game at evens with your speed and vision... and shoot the damn puck when you have a good look at the opposing goalie from below the dots. Put in your potential gamebreaking rookie blueliner in Hughes to help crack a collapsing Rangers defense and open up lanes for your forwards. Send Miles Wood to a Bitcoin symposium overseas or whatever so he stops taking boneheaded penalties while offering nothing else of value on the ice. Send the message to the Devils that the don’t need to play any mythical brand of playoff hockey, they just need to play their own damn brand of hockey.
Ruff, and by extension the Devils, played it safe in games one and two. Safe is death. Safe is a ritual execution of your team in your own building in front of 5,000 gloating schmucks in blue. Not much left to lose now, time to pull out the stops, ice your most talented lineup, and send a message to this team to play the game on your terms and if you go down, at least do it playing the type of hockey you were built to play.