The New Jersey Devils continue to struggle defensively, which has been the main contributor to the recent 3 game losing streak by the team. The timing of this losing streak could not be worse with just a few weeks remaining in the NHL regular season, and New Jersey has lost the ability to gain ground in the playoff chase in the very compact Eastern Conference.
The defensive struggles of this team undermined their effort in a bad loss against the Florida Panthers; and also hurt the team in the loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning because they had to play from behind the entire game.
In fact, I was on social media for a while on Tuesday night after I watched the latest Devils loss (4-2 to the surging Boston Bruins) and the general consensus from the fans seems to be that the playoff hopes for New Jersey are slim to none.
While this sentiment is not a news flash to anyone who follows hockey, I was upset that the general opinion of these fans seemed to be that the season was a total waste because the Devils would not be in the playoffs. I understand that with the exception of the big playoff run in 2011-12 the Devils have not seen much postseason activity recently, but this is a franchise with years of playoff success.
The fans of some other teams in the NHL would gladly trade their limited postseason success to have a run like the Devils experienced in the past 20 years. The playoffs should not be the only measurement of a successful season, and unfortunately in sports, it seems to be the way a respective team is judged at the end of a given season.
I also had a problem with this reaction from some of the fan base because I have been a fan of the Devils since the beginning when they first moved here from Colorado. I remember some really rough seasons with long losing streaks, and the playoffs for the Devils seemed like it would only happen in a dream. I still watched all those games, I still attended games, and I still supported the team and many other fans did as well. In fact, they still do today.
Some fans are ready to give up on the rest of the season because of the unlikelihood of the Devils making the playoffs. While I can understand the frustration, and as fans, we all want to see the Devils win. I personally want them to win the Stanley Cup every year, and I am disappointed when they do not, even when that prospect is highly unlikely.
However, that is not what being a fan should be about, look at some of the Canadian franchises: some of them had some incredible past success (Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Edmonton Oilers) and not much success in recent years. Others have had major disappointments in the playoffs (Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, and Ottawa Senators) and another is a reboot of an older franchise which has underperformed (Winnipeg Jets). All of these teams enjoy tremendous fan support even when their team has no chance of playing postseason hockey.
Most of us as fans of this team knew this season could be difficult, but we should rally behind the players on the ice who are playing hard and deserve our support. Even in the losses in Florida and the loss last night in Boston, this team did not quit out there on the ice. That is commendable, and that resiliency is a component of this roster that can be built upon in the future.
The recent stretch of losses for the Devils puts them in a position where they would essentially have to win 10 of the remaining 13 games to potentially qualify as a wild card for the playoffs. I am not sure if this team can make that type of run with the way the defense has played recently.
In addition, even if New Jersey made that run and obtained one of the wild card spots, that is a very steep climb against either Boston or the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
The goaltending for the Devils is largely absolved of the responsibility for this latest losing streak. The defense of this team has not played well, and some of the goals were in situations that the best goaltender in the world could not prevent.
A case in point here was in the game against the Bruins when Boston had four players on the Devils blue line just packed in and ready to attack. They scored a goal on that play to extend their lead, and New Jersey could not get on track again for the rest of the game. That type of defensive breakdown just cannot happen.
Head Coach Peter DeBoer also had Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas on the ice together as a defensive pairing at a few different points in the game against Boston, and even the announcers for the Devils on MSG+ were commenting about how that was a bad idea because they are too inexperienced.
The Devils too often try to poke check the puck away from the opponent instead of checking the opposing player or tying up the opposing player. It has been an issue all season and has been the Achilles heel of this edition of the Devils. We, as fans, observed that in the game in Nashville when Mark Fayne should have tied up his defensive assignment. He did not do so, and the Predators scored the winning goal on that play.
New Jersey has to get back to playing a more intense defensive style with the ferocity of hitting that they showed for that one stretch in late December and early January. I have seen glimpses of it since, the recent game against the Philadelphia Flyers is a good example, but not consistently enough to win games against good teams.
In fact, I was surprised that the Devils front office could not upgrade the defense at the trading deadline.
In the end, the Devils have to improve their play defensively and not give away puck possession in the neutral zone in order to remain competitive in the remaining games this season.