As the trade deadline looms larger, the New Jersey Devils could have taken a big step in reassuring general manager Lou Lamoriello this roster could make the playoffs.
Instead, the Devils missed a chance to shut the door on the rival New York Islanders.
New York scored two goals in the first period – including one in the first minute of regulation – to defeat the Devils, 3-1, at the Prudential Center. The win pulled the Isles within two points of New Jersey in the Eastern Conference standings. They remain in ninth place, tied with the eighth-place New York Rangers.
“We got them back [in the playoff picture],” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said after the loss. “I’m not saying we were going to put them away, but we got them back in the race.”
The loss was the fourth in a row from New Jersey and broke a streak of five straight games with a point. It also highlighted the season-long struggle for the Devils to find offense. They scored one goal for the ninth time this season. They’ve lost each of those games.
They also fell to 3-11-5 when allowing the first goal. The glaring weakness of the Devils offense isn’t built for a comeback, especially a multi-goal deficit after just one period.
“That [period] ended up being the game,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “We’re not a team that easily scores, so we have trouble digging ourselves out of holes that big.”
The offense floundered in that opening period. New Jersey attempted eight shots on net, getting just four on Evgeni Nabokov. His toughest save came from a Henrik Tallinder point shot, one with no screen in front or players crashing the net. All that was needed to stop the shot was a simple stick save.
Nabokov needed 24 saves for the win. He’s been the goalie of record in all of the Islanders wins this season.
New York came out of the gates the better team. Josh Bailey scored the first goal of the game 52 seconds after the opening faceoff.
Bryce Salvador stepped up at the Devils blue line to intercept a Kyle Okposo pass to Frans Nielsen, but missed. That sent the Islanders center in on a two-on-one rush with Bailey. He sent the puck past Marek Zidlicky to Bailey in the right circle. The Islanders center carried the puck on his forehand before pulling it to his backhand and cutting in front of the crease. Brodeur slid to his right to stop the shot, but Bailey put the puck inside the right post for his sixth goal of the season.
Travis Hamonic pushed the advantage to two at 7:14 of the first period. The Islanders defenseman beat Brodeur with a wrist shot from just inside the blue line for his third goal of the season.
“I didn’t see it,” Brodeur said of the shot. “I was looking for a hole somewhere to look through, and I couldn’t see him at all. I went to the middle of the net, not knowing where it was going, and it just found a way through people.”
That would be enough for the Islanders. The Devils offense, despite dominating the second period, could only muster one score. In a moment that perfectly sums up New Jersey’s season, Alexei Ponikarovsky had a chance at a wide open net from the slot. Nabokov left a rebound and was down and out of the play. All Ponikarovsky had to do was lift a backhand into the open net. He put his opportunity high.
That miss loomed large when he scored the Devils only goal minutes later.
Patrik Elias set up the left wing, carrying the puck toward the crease. His pass found the crashing Ponikarovsky, who put a shot past the pad of Nabokov for his fourth goal of the season.
It broke an 18-game goal drought for Ponikarovsky. He last scored on February 5, his first game back with New Jersey, against the Philadelphia Flyers.
John Tavares finished off New Jersey with a power play goal in the third period, restoring the Islanders two-goal advantage.
Lubomir Visnovsky carried the puck along the side boards before cutting toward the net. His pass went through the crease and found a wide open Tavares at the left post. He shot the puck into the open net for his 22nd goal of the season.
Tavares scored six goals against New Jersey in the five meetings. That included a hat trick on February 18.
“We took a penalty, and our penalty kill didn’t come through,” Brodeur said. “It’s definitely deflating.”
The Devils have an obvious need for offense. They have scored two or fewer goals in seven of the last ten games. It’s no surprise New Jersey has three wins in that time. The Devils minus-11 goal differential is the second-worst among teams in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. Their 89 goals are tied for the second-fewest among playoff teams.
Their biggest scorers have suffered through streaky seasons. Adam Henrique and Elias have failed to score a goal in three games. David Clarkson hasn’t found the back of the net in four straight contests. Before injuring his shoulder, Ilya Kovalchuk went five games without a score.
New Jersey should be buyers as the trade deadline approaches. DeBoer tried to plug the hole left by Zach Parise with a variety of players. All the combinations have failed, but the coach still stands behind his current roster.
“We have to find a way to get into the playoffs,” he said. “We’re in a playoff spot now, its in our own hands. I’ve got a lot of time for the group that we have in that room. A lot of those guys we went to war with last year and took us deep. I don’t doubt the group.”
The continued failure to generate offense is making that playoff push that much harder. After yet another disappointing performance, especially one against a division rival, New Jersey may force Lamoriello to make a deal.
Tom Kostopoulos was knocked out after taking a right hand from Matt Martin during a first period fight. The Devils forward left the game and did not return, but DeBoer said he expects him to be fine.
“It’s a part of the game, but I don’t think it’s a part that either team likes to see,” Carter said of the knockout. “I know we didn’t come out flying, but seeing that took the wind out of our sail for the rest of the first period for sure.”
Dainius Zubrus returned to the lineup since partially tearing a ligament in his wrist against the Rangers on February 5. The Devils forward had 17 shifts for 14:14. He recorded three hits and finished minus-1.
“It definitely feels like you haven’t played for a while,” Zubrus said about his return. “I knew it was going to happen. It sucks that you come back and we lose a game like that, that’s for sure.”
Devils center Travis Zajac battled the flu during tonight’s game. DeBoer said he left several times to head to the locker room to throw up. He played just 3:18 in the third period.