The defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils will only go as far as Martin Brodeur will carry them, and as the veteran is returning from injury and a bit rusty that may not be far. Gregg Patton reports.
NHL: Devil's in the detail as Martin Brodeur's struggles hurt New Jersey
But one year after playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Jersey boys are suddenly on the outside of the looking in, needing a big finish just to qualify.
This past week, before a home game against Boston Bruins, centre Adam Henrique told NBC Sports that the Devils were treating the game as if it were the play-offs. Minutes later they gave up two short-handed goals in the first period, fell behind 4-0 and lost, 5-4.
New Jersey have gone (0-5-4) in their past nine games, tumbling into 10th place. Five of their final seven games will come against likely play-off teams, and the two teams ahead of them for the final play-off spot, Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers, are playing well.
It is a stunning turn for the defending Eastern Conference champions, who have been in five Stanley Cup Finals in the past two decades, with three championship banners adorning their Prudential Centre home. This past week, the arena echoed with boos.
"We have to be as positive as we can in a negative atmosphere, and that's not easy," goalie Martin Brodeur told The Canadian Press after the loss to Boston.
Brodeur, 40, a future Hall of Famer, is a big reason the Devils have had such success for so long. Now he may be one of their troubling issues. Coach Pete DeBoer has started Brodeur the past 11 games, hoping to ride his star goaltender into the play-offs after the 20-year veteran returned from a pinched nerve in his neck that cost him most of March.
But Brodeur is having a so-so year, by his standards. His 2.30 goals against average is 11th in the league compared with other No 1 goaltenders. His .901 save percentage is 22nd.
The Devils have not been good enough as a whole to compensate. The team's defenders have been criticised for sub-par play, and the offence is flat-out sad - the lowest scoring team in the conference.
Their only dynamic playmaker, Ilya Kovalchuk, has a shoulder injury and has not played since March 23.
New Jersey lead the NHL in overtime losses with 10, a reflection of their missing creative skills in shoot-outs.
Even so, the Devils have a history of coming through. They went from fifth seed to finalists last spring, and after 20 years of seeing him in the net, most teams have an instinctive fear of a healthy Brodeur in the post-season.
"You have two choices," said DeBoer last week. "You roll over and die, or you get up tomorrow and find a way to turn a win into six, or seven, or whatever it's going to take."
It will take a lot.
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