Devils Losing Grip on Season After Game 3 Loss to Carolina
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils faced off against the Carolina Hurricanes last night at the Meadowlands, down 2-0 in their best-of-seven series and desperately needing a victory. In NHL history, only twice in 140 tries has a team come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series – the 1975 Islanders were the most recent team to accomplish the feat – so the game could only be categorized as a “must-win” situation. Unfortunately, the Devils weren’t up to the task, and falling 3-2 to the tenacious Hurricanes.
The Devils got off to a strong start, carrying play from the opening face-off and showcasing the superior playmaking ability that enabled them to make short work of the Rangers. And it didn’t take long for them to be rewarded for their efforts. New Jersey opened the scoring just three minutes into the game when Sergei Brylin took possession of a loose puck in front of the Hurricanes’ net and put it between goaltender Cam Ward’s leg pads.
The Devils’ celebration was short-lived, however. The Hurricanes went on the power play just three minutes later when Patrik Elias was called for tripping, and they evened the score when Matt Cullen lifted a backhand past Martin Brodeur, who was screened by defenseman Richard Matvichuk. Not surprisingly, the hard charging ‘Canes kept the pressure on, and scored again just past the midway point of the first period when Justin Williams fired a high shot past an out-of-position Brodeur. Though neither goal could be classified as indisputably “soft,” it was a bad omen for the Devils that Brodeur gave up two goals on the first five shots he faced, and that he looked extremely shaky in the process.
There was one key change to the Devils’ lineup for last night’s game, and it was a positive one. Hard-hitting defenseman Colin White was back in the lineup after missing five games with a groin injury, and not surprisingly, he was matched up against Eric Staal, Carolina’s best forward. The move enabled head coach/GM Lou Lamoriello to assign Matvichuk with the task of checking Doug Weight, and the overall effect was that the Devils’ defense was much better equipped to contain the Hurricanes’ offense. This season, White made huge strides forward with his game; no longer a liability when carrying the puck out of the defensive zone, he has evolved into a complete – and critical – member of the New Jersey defense.
The score stood at 2-1 when the first period concluded, but the Devils again came out strong to start the second period, drawing an early power play when Glen Wesley was incarcerated for hooking. They moved the puck around the ‘Canes’ zone at will, but were unable to capitalize.
But another Hurricanes’ obstruction penalty – this one to Rod Brind’Amour – gave the Devils the man advantage yet again, and this time they were successful. They cycled the puck around the perimeter in the ‘Canes’ zone for nearly a minute before Patrik Elias ripped a laser-like shot past Ward to even the score.
Unfortunately for the Devils, a pair of careless second period penalties ultimately proved to be their undoing. Defenseman David Hale shot the puck over the glass in the defensive zone and received a delay of game penalty. And though the Devils managed to kill off the Hurricanes’ power play, it was clear that spending too much time shorthanded was beginning to take its toll on New Jersey’s penalty killers.
Unsurprisingly, when Jamie Langenbrunner received a double minor for high sticking, the Devils paid dearly. After Carolina took control of the puck in the offensive zone, both Jay Pandolfo and White failed to clear the puck when given golden opportunities to do so. Shortly thereafter, Brind’Amour deflected a Staal point shot past Brodeur for what turned out to be the game-winner.
When the Devils’ roller coaster ride of a season was down to its final 20 minutes, it became clear that a more aggressive approach would be needed. But even when they pulled Brodeur in the game’s final minutes, they weren’t able to generate any high-quality scoring chances, and so Carolina came away with a hard-fought 3-2 victory.
The teams will meet again on Saturday afternoon, but a Devils comeback looks extremely unlikely at this point. Though New Jersey has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have the skill to compete with the Hurricanes, they have fallen into a chasm – largely of their own digging – from which it will be nearly impossible to escape.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.