By Steve Lichtenstein
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Before the Devils can even think about contending for a 2017 postseason berth in the Eastern Conference, they’re going to have to learn how to play playoff hockey.
That may sound odd to some who regard this team as one that plays it close to the vest, but the truth is New Jersey struggles against opponents that are as committed or more to those same tight-checking principles.
As the regular season progresses, points comes at a premium. Everyone is, or should be, in playoff mode, whether you’re the Devils and are hoping for a miraculous late-season run to secure the last wild card slot, or you’re Ottawa, which has Atlantic Division-leading Montreal in its sights.
Hence, these second-half games become tighter. Similar to what occurred last season around this time, the Devils have had a disturbing tendency to wilt under these conditions.
The Senators were the latest group to frustrate the Devils, beating them 3-0 at a staid Prudential Center on Thursday night.
“(Ottawa) is a very structured team,” Devils defenseman Andy Greene said. “They’re very persistent. That’s kudos to them.”
Senators goalie Mike Condon recorded 21 saves, none which could be described as acrobatic. Rebounds were scarce and Ottawa’s defense took ample care of the front of the net.
New Jersey was outshot 12-6 in the third period when it should have been in desperation mode to generate chances for a game-tying goal.
“(The game) really came down to the last 20 minutes,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “It’s 1-0 going into that period. I thought they did a good job defending and we didn’t stick with it hard enough. When the game got elevated competitively, where we were going to have to really work for our offense, we didn’t have the right response.”
Ottawa hemmed New Jersey in on the wrong side of the red line for much of the period. When the Devils did break out cleanly, they faced a clogged neutral zone.
“It wasn’t a game where you can get too many rush opportunities — run-and-gun — just the way both teams play with so much structure,” Devils right wing Kyle Palmieri said. “We knew we just had to chip pucks to speed and try to get though that line they put right around the red line and their blue line and get to our offensive zone play. We weren’t able to do that long enough tonight and that’s why we couldn’t generate as much offense as we would have liked.”
With the Devils’ attack MIA, goalie Cory Schneider needed to be perfect. He was really good, stopping 32 shots, but that wasn’t good enough.
The Senators got a pair of goals from defensemen, including the backbreaker by Erik Karlsson with 3:58 remaining.
Karlsson’s wrister from the right point trickled slowly through Schneider’s pads and into the net. Kyle Turris’ empty-netter sealed the Devils’ fate.
“(The Senators) had some looks, too, in the first and second period,” Hynes said. “Cory did a good job for us in keeping the game tight. We’ve got to get him one, we’ve got to get him two. That’s where our focus needs to go.”
For all the speed and skill general manager Ray Shero insisted he brought in during the offseason, the results have been disappointing. Only Colorado has tallied fewer than New Jersey’s 131 goals this season. The Devils have been outscored, 100-80, when five-on-five in their 57 games.
Against Ottawa, the Devils’ sole power play, a unit which had been red-hot of late, was earned after eight seconds of action, but it ended with a whimper.
“You can’t just rely on the power play,” Hynes said. “There were things we did five-on-five in the first and second periods that we didn’t stick with in the third period. We had to do a better job of being harder and smarter offensively to stick with getting ourselves through the neutral zone and then there were several times when we were in the offensive zone where we had the puck and we made some plays into the middle and it came right out of the zone.”
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Thursday’s game was nearly a carbon copy of the Devils’ 3-0 home loss to Florida last month. San Jose had New Jersey in a vice grip for much of its 4-1 victory on Sunday.
The Devils, who are still only five points behind eighth-place Toronto (which has a game in hand) can expect more of the same the rest of the way. They next face the wildly inconsistent Islanders in a home-and-home set this weekend. The Isles are just a point back of the Maple Leafs and are coming off a big win over the Rangers. After that set, the Devils will have to deal with the largely consistent Senators, Rangers and Canadiens, three of the league’s top 11 teams in goals against per game, at home.
You can say this is all karma for the Jacques Lemaire-inspired neutral zone trap that formed the base of the first of New Jersey’s three Stanley Cup runs two decades ago. But given the reality of the current dead-puck era, this team can’t take the next step until it learns to burst through teams that play like, well, the Devils.
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