Pain and No Gain

I haven’t written about the Devils since mid-November because frankly, there wasn’t much to write about through the end of 2009. They were playing well, scoring goals, coming up big on defense, and Niclas Bergfors was making a bid for the Calder Trophy. A short stint as the best team in the NHL, a nice lead in the Eastern Conference, and there was much to celebrate as we came up on New Year’s Eve. Then the wheels fell off.

The Devils are 6-7 since December 31st, and are angling for the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. It’s not just one losing streak or a few bad games — it’s an entire 4-week period of inconsistent, low-scoring, badly played hockey. And as a fan, this is ugly and distressing. Of course, it’s also about the time the Devils ask us to pony up for playoff tickets. Advice to Lou: win a few games before sending bills, or your aren’t selling out the playoffs this year either.

Right now the Devils are simply painful to watch. They don’t move the puck well, their defense is shoddy on a good night, they aren’t scoring goals, and the power play has ceased to exist. They’re getting shut out (twice in this span). Half of their goals seem to come on long feeds for breakaways or semi-breaks, which feels more like pond hockey than the NHL. One power play goal in nearly an entire game of power play time is pathetic – and that goal was more of an errant pass by Parise that happened to rattle into the net. Getting beaten to every loose puck, and making passes that So it’s time to write about this mess of a team — or lack of a team — because it’s both cathartic and because this seems to happen once every season.

What’s wrong?

Injuries: Elias, Martin, Clarkson. Zubrus is back. Oduya hasn’t quite been the same end to end rushing guy since he got hurt.

Trepidation: Way too much passing, not enough shooting. Too much thinking, not enough driving to the net. I think you hit a point when things are running badly that you worry more about not making mistakes rather than making something happen. Failing to create opportunity is the first problem. How many passes miss their target, have no target, or are intercepted by an opposing player in the slot?

Leadership: Hate to say it, but where are the reports of a team meeting? Of the team doing something without Lemaire in the room, of the captains sitting with the team and airing out whatever it is? Seeing Langenbrunner get angry and skate hard is encouraging; but this has to carry over to the guys who have the “A” on their jerseys as well.

Defense: Colin White is making dumb plays, or no plays, and when he’s on the ice with Mottau they seem to amplify each other’s bad choices. The most egregious case here was in the Montreal game over the weekend when there were three red jerseys behind the Devils’ net, while Cammalleri was eating a sandwich in the slot. Worse than basic coverage, the defense isn’t starting the puck out of the zone, and there are more times per game than you can count where the Devils get pushed back in on a forecheck because the puck doesn’t make it through the neutral zone. I’d even argue that the breakout schemes the Devils have been using through the first half of the year were well-scouted and now well-checked by their opponents. It’s only getting harder from here, not easier.

Rookie disappearance: I was expecting big things out of Bergfors, Corrente, Zharkov, Halischuk. Bergfors looked great early in the year, and now he’s just vaporized. Zharkov had his moments and now can’t produce. Halischuk is just gone. Yes, it’s unfair to ask rookies to make up for veteran players with solid locker room personalities, but absolutely no contribution from the new kids is worrisome.

This streak of ugliness, like all things, will pass. But I think the Devils need a wake-up call; a specific action and point of focus that will rally them through the Olympic break and into the last third of the season. I can’t watch the hockey equivalent of the Mets any more.
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