NEWARK, N.J. -- Let the record show that the New Jersey Devils' slim playoff chances faded away -- perhaps for good -- long before 9:25 p.m. on Friday.
The Devils may have lost their last two games -- and fallen to the NHL’s third-worst team, the Ottawa Senators, twice in the past 10 days -- but when it comes down to it, the reason they probably won’t make the playoffs after 13 consecutive appearances is because they couldn’t accumulate four-to-six more points in their absolutely abysmal 10-29-2 first half.
“Well, I tell you, if we played the same way as we did in the second half as we did in the first half, we’d be President Trophy winners," right winger Brian Rolston said after the Devils’ 3-0 shutout loss to the league’s hottest team, the Washington Capitals, which dropped their record to 23-5-2 in their last 30 games. “But you can’t look back. Absolutely not. The first half of the season was a debacle, the second half’s been good, but we’re battling for our lives now for sure. We have been pretty much the whole second half of the year, so nothing really changes, but there’s no room for error.”
There’s no room for error because of the way they played the first 41 games. Back when Ilya Kovalchuk wasn't scoring or playing two-way hockey, Martin Brodeur couldn’t stop a beach ball, the Devils’ blueliners had, in Henrik Tallinder's words, “no idea what they were doing” and New Jersey was the worst offensive and 5-on-5 team in the NHL.
That’s why the Devils have had to be nothing short of perfect in the second half of the season. And for the most part, as outlandish as it may sound, they have been. After all, since Jan. 8, they’ve gotten 48 of a possible 60 points (80 percent).
But because of the way they performed in the first half, getting only 22 of a possible 82 points (26.8 percent), every loss becomes magnified -- their first two-game losing streak in over two months even more so.
“This is what we have to face,” said Brodeur. “We did it to ourselves, so again, there’s time for us to win the rest of the games, and try to make it happen.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. This is the adversity that we’re facing right now to get back on track. And we have to do it quickly because we don’t have much time left to get points and get back. It’s definitely back-to-back losses puts a damper on things, that’s for sure. We just gotta regroup. There’s nobody else that’s gonna help us, so we gotta do it ourselves.”
With just 11 games remaining, the Devils (33-34-4), once 27 points back, find themselves six points behind the Buffalo Sabres (34-28-8) and 10 points behind the New York Rangers (38-30-4) for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Time is starting to become a factor, and the players are well aware they’re going to need help. Granted, they’re not ready to start panicking just yet.
“We’ve been saying all along, we’ve played some great hockey,” Rolston said. “Now you lose two games, and you guys are asking ‘Is this the end of the world?’ It’s not the end of the world. We have 11 games left, and we probably have to win 10 of them. I don’t know if that’s the right calculation, but pretty close right? That’s what we gotta shoot for. Nothing changes in our dressing room. Just one game at a time.”
One game at a time has been their mantra since the second half of the season began. And with each victory they earned, their unwavering belief grew stronger. As did their confidence. But all of a sudden, reality is starting to set in. And all it took was two straight losses.
The Devils have scored just once in their last two games, their power play is 1-for-14 in their last four games -- it was 0-for-4 on Friday night -- and they’ve now given up three goals in regulation, something they hadn’t done since Feb. 3, in consecutive games.
“That’s the situation we’re in,” left winger Patrik Elias said. “Nobody is thinking about what if. Every game is important to us. We didn’t play the way we wanted to yesterday, I thought today was a much better game from us, but like I said, they made us pay. They just had a handful of chances and they’re a dangerous offensive team. I thought we were better tonight, otherwise we wouldn’t have outshot them that much [33-12].”
Interim coach Jacques Lemaire kept saying during this improbable, yet remarkable 30-game turnaround that the team was going to take a dip at some point. It just never happened.
Now it has. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The Devils will hit the road for four consecutive games starting Sunday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then they’ll face the Boston Bruins (Tuesday), Pittsburgh Penguins (Friday) and Sabres (Saturday). And they’ll need to win all of them to stay alive.
As Rolston said, a 10-1-0 finish would bring them to 90 points, which might be enough for them to avoid missing the postseason for the first time since 1995-96, when they were eliminated from contention by the Senators in their final game that season.
So is this the first time the team has faced adversity in the second half?
“Well, I would say that we’ve faced plenty of adversity this year,” Rolston said. “Whether it was the second half or the first half, I think we’ve faced plenty of adversity. We have a lot of character in this dressing room, and I think we’re gonna regroup on the road. But the fact of the matter is, we have 11 games left and we probably have to win 10 of them.”
The Devils can’t afford to look back and wonder what it would’ve been like had they been able to hold a two-goal lead in their season opener against the Dallas Stars; if Kovalchuk hadn’t lost the puck during the 4-3 shootout loss to the Sabres on Nov. 10; if they weren’t the recipients of an awful third-period bounce of the boards which resulted in the deciding goal in a 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 4.
Because at this juncture, all they can do is look forward. And yet, at the same time, had they accumulated four-to-six more points, they would've been able to brush these two losses aside -- or at least not think of them as "the end of the world," at any rate.
“We have to practice hard tomorrow,” said Kovalchuk, who was denied on three glorious opportunities by Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth (33 saves) Friday night. “We have nothing to lose now. We have to win every game. We just have to show up.”