New Jersey Devils’ Latest Missed Opportunity is Epitome of Uninspired Season

The New Jersey Devils failed to capitalize on an opportunity to move up in the Wild Card race, dropping a must-win game against the Buffalo Sabres. The Devils are not a playoff team, and here's why.
Nico Hischier
Nico Hischier / Adam Hunger/GettyImages

The New Jersey Devils’ latest loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night was another missed opportunity by an uninspired team. Throughout the 2023-24 season, the Devils have continually failed to capitalize on opportunities to move up in the standings. The Devils’ lack of urgency in another must-win situation showed once again that they are not a playoff team.

The second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference has been up in the air, waiting for one of several teams to grab it. The Devils, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, and Buffalo Sabres have all lingered in striking distance of each other in the race. The Capitals have made a strong surge and have now tied the Philadelphia Flyers in points, putting them ahead for third in the Metropolitan Division with two games in hand.

The out-of-town scores worked in the Devils' favor on Thursday, setting up an opportunity to gain some ground on Friday. A win in the game against the Sabres would have pushed the Devils just three points out of a Wild Card spot and four points out of third place in the Metropolitan Division. Instead, they remained five points out of the Wild Card and six points out of third in the Metro with just eight games remaining. After the Capitals gained an OTL point on Saturday, the Devils are now six points out of third in the division and the Wild Card.

New Jersey started off strong on Friday night, scoring first, a rarity for the Devils in the 2023-24 season. They were up 2-0 at the end of the first period. But things unraveled from there on out. The Sabres have been clinging to Wild Card hopes of their own and took advantage of the Devils' defensive mistakes. Tage Thompson had a hat trick and ultimately scored an empty-netter for a fourth goal.

The Devils failed to respond. The team looked completely different in the second and third periods than they did in the first period. They didn’t show up to play a full 60 minutes, something the Devils have often been guilty of. The Sabres won 5-2. We have felt a particular game was the nail in the coffin for Stanley Cup Playoff hopes a few times, only for the Devils to come back with a strong game or two. It's time to let it go.

Perhaps Tage Thompson was the one who sank the last of the Devils’ playoff hopes. But the Devils weren’t just beaten by one player. Following the defeat, Nico Hischier spoke to the media about the Devils’ struggles, calling the loss “another immature performance” by the team. "I think everybody has to look themselves in the mirror,” he said. “If you play against teams like that, the only way they're going to beat you is you beat yourself. And that's what we did here tonight again.” The captain’s words ring true. The Devils beat themselves. Again.

There’s a long list of reasons for what went wrong with this season. The Devils lost Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Timo Meier to injuries earlier in the season. They lost Dougie Hamilton for most of the season. Goaltending was terrible. If only a goaltending trade was made sooner. If only this player hadn’t been injured, if only that player hadn’t been injured, if only a coaching change had been made sooner, if only this, if only that. That’s the story of the New Jersey Devils’ 2023-24 season.

Of course, there’s plenty of truth to the above reasons, and so much has to go right for a team to go on a tear. But great teams put excuses aside and find a way to win. Even throughout March, post-Lindy Ruff firing, with the majority of their roster healthy and an opportunity to find a way to sneak into the playoffs, the Devils have failed to string together more than two wins in a row, showing a lack of consistent play. They have continued to lose winnable games to bottom-tier teams in the NHL, like the Ottawa Senators and Arizona Coyotes.

The Devils have enough talent on the roster to be a playoff team. They simply haven’t been the electric team that surprised the NHL last season with their success. They’re inconsistent and lack a sense of urgency. This is a season of missed opportunities. A season of failure to overcome setbacks. A season of disappointment. It will soon be time to turn the page.