The New Jersey Devils are entering the stretch run and the playoffs are within their reach again, after a victory last night over the Florida Panthers. My colleague, Thomas Formoso, provided a great breakdown of the Devils playoff scenarios in his article earlier today to preview the game tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.
Every game for the Devils is crucial as they chase that final wild card playoff position, in a season which has had numerous moments of inconsistent play, this team needs to focus and win hockey games. The Devils had numerous opportunities to put away Florida last night, and they kept letting the Panthers back into the game.
It looked at one point like New Jersey was going to squander a three goal lead before locking down and burying a couple of scoring chances to secure the much needed win.
According to NBC Sports, after the game Devils forward Jaromir Jagr criticized his teammates saying that they were “sleepwalking” out there and that the team had to play with far more intensity, adding that the Devils were “lucky” to get the win last night against Florida.
Now these criticisms are nothing new for Jagr, he has been outspoken all season, but this is a critical juncture for the team and for Jagr, who is a free agent this summer. Many of the current Devils want Jagr back on the team, but if he feels this team lacks the passion or intensity to win games, he will take his services elsewhere. I think that would be a big loss for the Devils.
The report also made a note that Jagr has the support of both the Head Coach and of the GM, Lou Lamoriello , when he makes these types of comments to the media about the performance of the team. I have to say, as a fan, I respect Jagr for saying it and being honest. However, it also makes me concerned that the team is giving up on the rest of the season.
That would not be fair to the front office, the other players on the roster, the fan base, or the game of hockey. The fans that buy tickets or buy merchandise and support this team deserve the maximum effort of this team until the end of Game 82, or whenever their season ends in the playoffs.
Therefore, beyond anything else, I am going to look at the effort this team puts forth tonight up in Western New York against a Buffalo team that is going nowhere this season, and is not a very good home ice team either. If the Devils bring some intensity and play intelligently, they have the talent to win this game tonight.
Travis Zajac had his first career hat trick in last night’s win, and he missed the net on two other chances, but he has been playing very well lately, and others attribute his resurgence to the play of his wingers: Jagr and Ryane Clowe.
Both Jagr and Clowe were able to penetrate the Panthers defense and create offensive scoring opportunities with some impressive passing last night. Clowe has played well since the Olympic break also, but he left the game last night with an apparent head injury, and for someone with his history with concussions, that was an alarming sight for me watching at home.
Jagr commented to the media after the game, and I am paraphrasing, that Clowe is an important part of the team, especially his line with Zajac, and that he is a big guy that they need to win puck battles along the boards. If Clowe is out for any length of time, the team will look to Tuomo Ruutu to play the left wing on the top line with Jagr and Travis Zajac.
Zajac is a very talented offensive player who is capable of having hat trick type performances on a regular basis as long as he slows down and remains focused. He is such a gifted and fast skater, that sometimes I feel like he over-skates the puck. The Devils need him to play well if they are going to make a run at the wild card over the next couple of weeks.
Back to Basics
The Devils have to get back to the basics here in the remaining games and forecheck, win possession of the puck in the neutral zone, and create offensive opportunities with solid entries from neutral ice into the attacking zone.
New Jersey demonstrated some excellent vision last night with their passing and offensive playmaking, which I hope will carry over into the games both tonight and on Friday night. This team is talented and capable of making a run down this final stretch of games if they remain focused.
However, if they sleepwalk like they did for portions of the games recently, they will be making arrangements to go home and not to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I certainly hope that is not the case, and that they finish this season playing at a high level.
(Statistics courtesy of NHL.com and background information courtesy of NBC Sports.com)