By Steve Lichtenstein
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I’d like to chalk up the Devils’ 3-2 home stinker against Florida on Monday night as a schedule loss.
It was the Devils’ third game in four nights. It was their seventh game in 12 nights, with four of the previous six requiring extra time. Unsurprisingly, New Jersey was at least a step slower than normal for the first two periods. You don’t get outshot 31-10 by a below-average team like the Panthers unless the legs aren’t doing what the mind wants, right?
The Devils did rally twice from a goal down in the third stanza but couldn’t net the equalizer after Jared McCann’s fortunate second-chance goal with 7:15 remaining.
Nineteen-year-old Devils wing Jesper Bratt, who tied the score at 2-2 from behind the net with a bank shot off Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad, said afterward that he had never played so many games in such a short span.
To their credit, however, the Devils did not use the grueling schedule as an excuse for hanging goaltender Cory Schneider (35 saves) out to dry.
“We laid an egg,” forward Adam Henrique said.
A perturbed coach John Hynes was equally succinct.
“We just weren’t good enough tonight — playing and coaching,” he said, channeling his inner Todd Bowles with mostly one-sentence answers.
When asked if it was his club’s effort or fatigue that was the issue, Hynes said, “All of the above.”
The anger that permeated the Devils’ locker room can actually be a positive sign. A year ago, they might have just shrugged this one off with an “Oh well, we’ll be better next game.”
But this is a different group, and their goals have changed even from the preseason. This team believes they can be more than 20-odd game wonders. While the rest of the league is waiting for New Jersey, still in first place in the rigorous Metropolitan Division with 32 points, to fall back into the pack, the Devils have designs on breaking their five-season playoff drought.
They have thrived despite dealing with potentially devastating injuries since even before training camp. Centers Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle missed the team’s first 17 and 10 games, respectively, and top-six wings Kyle Palmieri (broken foot) and Marcus Johansson (concussion) have also been out of the lineup for a while. The Devils announced Monday that Johansson is now cleared to return for their three-game road trip starting Friday in Colorado.
This trip will be a good test to see if New Jersey can get back to its identity or if Monday was a turning point in the wrong direction.
Until then, the Devils can at least use the rest.
ZAJAC SHOULD BE ON THIN ICE
A few words about accountability, something I’ve been happy to see Hynes preach and practice this season when players fail to perform to the team’s standards. We’ve already seen Hynes make surprise healthy scratches of Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Damon Severson and Ben Lovejoy for cause in the season’s first 24 games. Others, be it No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier or Johansson, a 24-goal scorer with the Caps last season, have been benched within games to emphasize a particular point.
My question, then, is, when does Hynes sit Zajac, who has yet to register a point in his seven games since returning from a torn pectoral muscle?
It made no sense to me that Zajac received more ice time Monday than any forward besides Henrique, Hischier and Taylor Hall in a game in which the Devils struggled to get their feet moving. Though his line with Henrique and Drew Stafford did generate a few scoring chances on Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, Zajac again came up empty on the scoresheet.
I get that Hynes is comfortable with Zajac in any situation, particularly one that calls for defense, but Zajac doesn’t seem to fit with the club’s new emphasis on quick transitions. He is perfect in a structured game, which is most coaches’ dream, since much of every shift he takes resembles pairs dancing.
However, the Devils already have Boyle for that. Zajac should be the better player — he’s more skilled and sports a superior faceoff percentage — but Boyle has at least been producing a little after his own recovery after being diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia.
The Devils have started strong due to their speed-grit combination, and they have depth up the middle — Henrique, Zacha and Johansson have all played some center this season before moving to wing to accommodate Zajac and Boyle.
Zajac may have earned some mulligans due to past performance and then sitting out all of training camp and the preseason, but if he doesn’t show he can play at the faster pace by the end of the trip, Hynes shouldn’t back away from another difficult decision.
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