The New Jersey Devils concluded their four game road trip with a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes Saturday night. It was yet another example of this team struggling at the start of the game, and they fell behind 2-0 halfway through the opening period. Ryane Clowe’s power play goal cut the deficit in half, and the Devils carried that momentum into the second period. They largely outplayed the Coyotes in the middle frame, but their efforts did not result in any points on the scoreboard. Martin Hanzal gave Phoenix the insurance tally that they would eventually need by jamming a loose puck under Martin Brodeur’s pads. A late goal by Jarormir Jagr gave the Devils the opportunity for one final push in the final minute of the game, but goaltender Mike Smith stood tall in net to seal the victory. The loss was New Jersey’s first in regulation since January 4th.
The road trip as a whole saw the Devils earn four out of a possible eight points. The team showed a great deal of resiliency against both Toronto and Colorado, coming back to earn a point in games where they were outplayed for long periods of time. Their inexplicable shootout failures continued as they dropped to 0-8 on the year and 1-25 shooting (Elias and Henrique missed against Colorado). Slow starts are becoming a real problem for this team. They gave up the first goal in each of the four games, and for the most part the first period was the worst period they played in every game.
Sandwiched in between the two shootout losses was a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Once again the Devils had to overcome a slow start in the first period, but pressed forward and dominated the final 40 minutes of the game. Martin Brodeur made 30 saves in the victory, and it was his 20th win in his 30th, and potentially final, start in his home city of Montreal. Getting wins against opponents as good as the Canadiens makes games like the ones against the Coyotes even more frustrating. The Devils have the ability to play against any team on any given night, and have actually shown that they can play up to the level of their competition this year. Unfortunately, they have not been able to put together enough consistent efforts against the middle level teams of the NHL to be in a playoff spot.
The Devils now face a very difficult three game “home” stand. They play two games at the Rock, Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues and Friday versus the Capitals, concluded with their Stadium Series matchup at Yankee Stadium with the New York Rangers, where the Devils are technically the home team. These three games, along with the other six remaining games before the Olympic break are crucial to the Devils playoff aspirations. Specifically the games against the Capitals and the Rangers have a heightened importance because those are two of the teams that New Jersey is chasing in the Metropolitan division standings. The Devils have had success against their division rivals, compiling a 4-0 record against both teams this season. The key for the Devils will be to keep themselves in the race at the time of the Olympic break. After these three games the schedule is not difficult, and it can allow them to go on the type of run that they need to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the Eastern conference. The Devils certainly won’t be able to secure a playoff spot in that time, but a rough stretch can put them behind the eight ball for the second half of the season.