Everyone knew that the Devils had a slim chance of making the playoffs after going 5-4-1 in the last 10 games prior to their match against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. Their final hope was getting 87 points to tie for the final spot, which means they would have to win every single game until the end of the season.
That, of course, was a far fetched dream, because the Devils were sitting in 12th place and Carolina, Toronto and Atlanta were also ahead of them attempting to reach that same spot. With the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres tied with 87 points, an upset could happen in the next couple of weeks from any of the teams. That was an upset the Devils were hoping to make by the last game of the season.
Unfortunately, the Canadiens delivered the upset and eliminated the Devils from the playoffs after their 3-1 win on Saturday night.
It’s a harsh reality for the Devils, who have been at the top of their division post-lockout. But every sports team knows that these things are bound to happen. You can be successful for many years, and then fall out of the top spot the next year. It’s all a matter of how you change the following year that determines if you really are winners that had a bad year, or you’ve turned into a losing team.
The Devils rank third in man games lost this season. . Guys that were meant to make a difference this season and help the Devils to the playoffs were injured and left out of the lineup for the majority of the season. Injuries to key players like defensemen Bryce Salvador and Matt Taormina, along with forward Zach Parise left the Devils defeated early on in the season. The loss of those key players showed.
In the first half, for a team touted to be a defensive team, they lost important players on the blueline. For a team known to have offensive talent, they lost one of their top goal scorers.
Ilya Kovalchuk was expected to step up and take on the pressure of being two superstars in one. But he’s a mental player. If he’s pressured, he can’t produce. He was weighed down by the pressures of what happened in the summer, as well as the pressure to step in and be the ‘it’ guy that will save the team. Those pressures found him in a scoring drought. To add to the weight already on his shoulders, he was met with an onslaught from fans across the league that laughed at both him and the Devils, because this performance wasn’t worth $100 million.
But luckily for the Devils, after all that’s happened, they didn’t go out as the worse team in the league. Sure, they sat in that spot for months, but they battled their way out together as a team, thanks to Jacques Lemaire’s coaching. He gave them the tools to learn how to get themselves out of the mess they were in.
The difference between Lemaire’s coaching from one season to the next all lies in how the players received their coach. Last season, the players were cocky. They believed they were winners.
Lemaire is a teacher and teaches his players how to be better than what they already are. The players didn’t want to hear that they could be better. They were number one, why do they need to be better?
They didn’t care what he had to say, because apparently they knew it all. Then what happened? They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
But for some reason, karma decided to side with Lemaire in this matter. He retired after the way the Devils players treated him. Then the Devils hired John MacLean as head coach.
Their fall into the doldrums left them questioning what was wrong. Neither the team nor the coach knew how to get the team to work again. With only ten wins by the midway point, they needed help wherever they could get it.
Luckily for them, Lemaire gave them a second chance.
All of those lessons he was trying to teach the players before…finally sunk in. They needed his wisdom. They needed his teachings. They needed to re-learn Hockey 101 all over again.
Most of the players on the team were those same players that said last season that they were winners and didn’t need Lemaire’s teachings, because they knew how to play hockey.
As fate would have it for the know it alls, they were kicked down to the point where they needed to appreciate just what Lemaire was trying to teach them. Ironically, he had to start with Hockey 101 all over again. Fate, karma, and the universe was trying to teach the Devils a lesson. They had to know what it was like to lose in order to appreciate what it means to win. Better yet, to appreciate what Lemaire was trying to teach to them from the start.
For the Devils, they took winning and that privilege for granted, as if it was owed to them. They have been known to be a winning team. Kovalchuk signed with the Devils because they were a winning team. The way the other 29 teams describe the Devils is that they are a winning team. It had all gone to everyone’s heads, including the players.
“There’s no doubt that the Devils were one of the premiere organizations in our league,” said Montreal coach Jacques Martin. “Their performance year after year has shown that. Even this year, if it wouldn’t have been for the difficult start, with the way they played after Christmas, they would have been in the playoffs.”
The winning card was taken away from them to teach them all a greater lesson.
There is always room for growth and improvement no matter who you are. Sure, a player can be great now, but he can be greater. Forwards needs to learn to play defensively, no matter how great their slapshots are. Defensemen need to play more offensively, to generate every chance the team can get to score. There is always room for improvement, and that’s what Lemaire has been trying to teach them since day one.
Kovalchuk got out of his scoring drought after Lemaire’s return. He, like the rest of his teammates this time around, soaked up Lemaire’s teachings like a sponge. Kovalchuk has had a history of not wanting to play defensively, but under Lemaire, he learned the importance of playing defensively. When you don’t (as a forward), it could lead to a goal from the opposition. Kovalchuk has seen that happen to him one too many times this season. He has learned how to correct that for himself and for his team.
This season has been a time of learning for the Devils. One of the greatest lessons is that they are not perfect. There is always room for improvement.
One player that faces the hardest obstacle in improvement is Parise. In his first game back in the lineup, he put in 16:05 of ice time and two shots on goal.
But being off the ice since November can have drastic consequences for a professional hockey player.
“He looked like a guy that hadn’t played for a year,” Lemaire said of Parise. “He’s got to go through this. It’s going to take a little time.”
Parise had pushed himself for the first time in his career. He felt sluggish and slow as compared to his teammates. He struggled to keep up.
But that’s to be expected of any hockey player that hasn’t been able to skate until recently. The other guys on the ice have been going full force day after day for over 75 games with practices in between. Parise still has plenty of conditioning to do until September.
It’s good for the team, fans and Parise to be back on the ice before the season has ended. It’s good for everyone’s morale. But what should have been uplifting for the team, proved to be catastrophic on the ice. The Devils played their worst game of the season under Lemaire. Parise’s presence had upset their balance.
Parise is playing catch-up with the team, and he knows it. It’s one thing to practice the plays mentally, quite another to execute them when your teammates have been executing these plays on the ice for months. It was as if a rookie had joined the team, was thrown out there for the first time and expected to perform at an elite level.
While these last few games will be beneficial for Parise, the team can only hope that they can generate wins together with him to improve his morale. Parise is one of those guys that’s accustomed to winning and takes it hard when the team doesn’t win. These next few games are important to him. A loss in the first game back was definitely not the way to be welcomed back.
Unfortunately for Martin Brodeur, he didn’t have much help in front of his net.
“Can you ask Marty to be better than how he was tonight?” Lemaire asked. “He had nobody in front of him. Sorry that’s what it is. That’s what it was. I’m trying to find a guy that played well besides Marty. I can’t. It’s got to be Mair [and] Steckel.”
Mattias Tedenby’s attempt on net at 4:48 in the first period went awry thanks to Hal Gill. He was awarded a penalty shot that ended up going off the inside of the post, back out, and out in front of Carey Price. It was a lucky break for the Canadiens, unlucky for the Devils. At 9:43 Mathieu Darche lit up the 3,000-plus Habs fans in Prudential Center with a redirect from a Brian Gionta slapshot.
With Jay Leach in the penalty box at the end of the middle period for a delay of game call, the Canadiens started off the final period on the power play. P.K. Subban’s slapshot from the blueline gave Montreal a 2-0 lead. Darche followed with another from Gionta at 3:34.
With some masterful handiwork behind the net, Patrik Elias sent the puck up to a waiting Kovalchuk parked next to the crease, who quickly jammed the puck in to give the Devils their lone goal of the game at 14:01.
In the final minute, Lemaire decided not to pull Brodeur for an extra attacker.
“I didn’t want another goal,” Lemaire said. “I had enough. One game I did pull the goalie and we had a bad game. I promised myself next bad game I wouldn’t pull [the goalie].
“I was bothered by this game so much. I was bothered so much how we played. It never crossed my mind…how bad we were with the…you know that little round thing there called a puck.
“No energy,” Lemaire said of the Devils’ performance. “I think it was more the mind.”
The Devils now have four remaining games in the season, two on the road and two at home. They face the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday before hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.