During the regular season, there was no lead that was safe when you were playing the New Jersey Devils. They came from behind on 26 different occasions to win a game, which was tops in the NHL this year. As a Devils fan, watching a game, I rarely ever felt just dejected like the game was over in the 2nd period. I knew this team had a ton of fight in it, and there would be times when they would tilt the ice in their favor and get some back and make it a contest.
In the playoffs, however, everything has changed in this regard. The Devils have lost 5 games so far, and in all 5 of them, they were out of it before the third period and never even sniffed at any sort of comeback. In fact, they just gave up more goals and looked beaten. So much so that last night, watching that game in the second period, I was fully expecting them to be doormats in the third period, and that is exactly what they were. Of course, you have to tip your hat to Carolina, who played a fantastic game and didn’t allow the Devils to get any sort of momentum for a comeback. They just kept pressing the attack and getting grade-A chances which led to plenty of goals. Once NJ was down, they were out.
This is a troubling change in this team, a team that showed a ton of fight and resilience during the regular season. That was one of their best traits, one that led them to end the season 3rd in total points. You don’t accumulate that many wins and points without being resilient and adapting to any game situation in order to score and win. But in these playoffs, they’ve shown so far that they forgot how to do that altogether.
The sad thing too is that this has really only gone one way. The Devils have not kept games close when falling behind, but they did win a couple of games that were super close, game 3 especially which went into overtime. Yes, New Jersey did have dominating, convincing wins in games 5 and 7, but every win was not that way. Certainly, game 3 was not, and game 4 was no walk in the park by the end of the game, they needed a full 60-minute performance to hold off a potential comeback. And with the way Carolina has played through the first two games of this series, you know that if the Devils do manage to jump out to a lead tomorrow afternoon, the Canes are not simply folding like the Devils have in the first two games in this series. They are going to make NJ work for every minute to hold onto a lead and get that pivotal game 3 win.
The biggest issue with this is that it isn’t sustainable. You cannot give your opponents easy wins every time they take a lead, but half of the time be required to play full 60-minute games to hold onto your leads. That is a path that will lead you to the exit of this postseason on the sooner side. It worked in the first series because the defense and goaltending stepped up mightily and NJ only trailed in one game from games 3 through 7. And in that one game, game 6, they lost rather convincingly. Well, you cannot always expect the defense to become the next version of the neutral zone trap, and you cannot expect Akira Schmid to continue to be Martin Brodeur reincarnate every minute of every single game. You’re going to give up goals. In fact, you’re going to give up more goals this series, as New York struggled mightily on offense, something Carolina has not, even with their injuries. They will score. Can you come back from that, can you do more than just lie over, potting one irrelevant goal in the process to say you weren’t shut out? So far, the answer has been a resounding no. And coming from the team that was able to come back and win games more than any other in the regular season, it is a concerning shift.
If the Devils want to get back into this series and contend, they are going to need to relearn how to come back from behind to keep games close and win games after trailing. You would think it would be something they know well after doing it 26 times in the regular season, but considering how they have been downright non-competitive any time they fall behind in the playoffs, they have obviously forgotten. Lindy Ruff is a Jack Adams finalist. Make the adjustments and get your guys out there in positions to succeed and get back into games. What’s happening now isn’t working, at all. It is an unsustainable model that will lead to a playoff exit soon. Being able to hold a lead is fantastic, and let’s hope that they get out to an early lead tomorrow and hold onto it. But if they fall behind, they need to be able to come back, and they have shown none of that capability in the playoffs. That could be the key to getting back into this series.