By Max Herman
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The New Jersey Devils are not a franchise that has been familiar with having to catch teams from behind in order to fight for a playoff spot. But here we are just about a quarter of the way through the season, and the Devs have created quite a mess for themselves. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “It’s getting late early.” After Thursday night’s 3-1 loss in Toronto at the hands of the struggling Maple Leafs, I think it’s time to come right out and say it: the Devils are in crisis mode.

You’d have an easier time finding Waldo than trying to find a favorable statistic that portrays this team in a positive light. They’re the only team in the NHL averaging less than 2 goals per game. Only five teams are giving up more goals per game. Only two teams have a lower success rate on the power play. Certainly these numbers help to provide insight into why the Devils have earned just 12 points out of a possible 38 so far.

For rookie head coach John MacLean, it has to be maddening to see many of the extremely capable players on his roster largely under performing. And while lack of effort does not seem to be the issue for this team, the Devils have not been putting together complete games where they play their best hockey for all 60 minutes, and that’s by their own admission.

There’s a lot of talent on the roster, even despite some of the injuries that have slowed their progress. Really, there’s so much talent that many pundits – myself included – are starting to really struggle with pinpointing why it is that this team can’t seem to get out of its own way.

You don’t always get a whole lot of insight from players during postgame interviews when the last thing they want to do is explain at length to the media why they keep losing. But Patrik Elias provided this little nugget after the loss on Thursday night that definitely struck a chord with me:

“We have to be the team to initiate the game now and playing the way we’re playing the last 10 minutes when we’re down,” Elias said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re waiting to get down in the game. Once that happens, all of a sudden we play better hockey: everybody’s just jumping on the puck, everybody’s moving as a five-man unit out there. That’s what we have to do from the get-go.”

A team struggling as much as the Devils needs this kind of candid self-reflection in order to right the ship. One can only hope that these kinds of self-critiques were taken to heart during the players-only meeting that was held directly after the loss in Toronto on Thursday night.

For what it’s worth, 88 points were required to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season. In order for the Devils to earn 88 points this season, this team that has won about 25% of its games so far would have to win about 60% of its games from this point forward. So now both history and mathematics are working against New Jersey.

Their next two games should provide a great indication of whether or not the Devils can remain resilient. They finish their 3-game road trip against the upstart St. Louis Blues on Saturday before coming home to play Alex Ovechkin and the surging Washington Capitals on Monday.

Max’s Three Stars of the Week

Third Star: Rod Pelley – Adam Mair – Stephen Gionta (The Fourth Line)

This trio has done everything you could ask from a fourth line, besides score a goal. Every time they are on the ice, the puck seems to stay in the offensive zone. They’ve generated several quality scoring chances and have outworked the fourth units of many of the Devils’ opponents when matched up with them head-to-head. By playing as hard as he has, Stephen Gionta in particular has become somewhat of a fan favorite, much like his older brother Brian was when he played for New Jersey.

Second Star: LW Ilya Kovalchuk

Let’s give the Devil his due. Even though we’re still waiting for Kovy to break out of his shell and go on a scoring tear, Ilya has done his part in the past week to contribute to a winning cause. He scored the game-winner in overtime against the Oilers to give the Devils their first home win. He also assisted on the lone goal in Toronto. More importantly, he has seemed to settle into himself a little bit. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s still not playing at his top level, but you can see him starting to put it together out there.

First Star: RW Mattias Tedenby

After watching this kid’s first four games in the NHL, I think we all have the same thought: Where the hell was this kid for the first 15 games??? Tedenby has just been flat-out exciting to watch. His stick handling skills are outstanding and he seems to have adjusted to the speed of the NHL game quite nicely. Tedenby’s first career assist came on his first shift against Buffalo. His first career goal tied the game in the 3rd period against Edmonton. The Bruins used their size to push him around a little bit (he’s only 5’10”, 175 lbs. after all), but that didn’t stop him from registering 5 shots on goal. All in all, I don’t think this young Swede has to worry about going back to Albany any time soon.

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