Saturday, 2 April 2011

Un-Devil-ish Playoffs

This is a sight all too familiar for Devils fans this season. Normally a shining example of how to keep the puck out of the net, the Devils found themselves fishing the puck out of the back of net far too often earlier this season, and the magical, improbable run to the playoffs is now over thanks to the Montreal Canadiens. For the first time since 1996, the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs will not have the New Jersey Devils involved. It seems weird to write that, but it truly became a case of the Devils racing against time as they tried to make up an insane amount of ground that they gave up early in the season.

If you didn't already know this, the Devils had the second-best run of consecutive playoff appearances going in the NHL until this season. They had appeared 13 straight times in the "second season", and were second only to Detroit's 20-straight appearances (which will continue for another season). During that run, the Devils were Stanley Cup winners on three separate occasions.

Tonight, the Montreal Canadiens, who had been thwarted by the Devils in 1997 in the opening round of the playoffs, set the Devils up with an early tee time thanks to a 3-1 victory. Mathieu Darche was the key culprit as he deflected home two of the three Montreal goals in leading Les Habitants to victory. Normally, there is some sense of disappointment when a team misses the playoffs, but you got a different feeling from Martin Brodeur after the game.

"We knew it was going to come," goaltender Martin Brodeur said to The Associated Press. "It doesn't come as a shocker. We had a good run, played really hard to get ourselves in position to compete. It was just too much. We've got four more games and we'll try to keep doing what we've been doing."

With the team 27 points out of a playoff spot in January, the Devils began a remarkable run that began with the hiring of Jacques Lemaire as their head coach after dismissing the ineffective John MacLean. The Devils made additional changes after losing their first game with Lemaire behind the bench, and immediately began producing results. After tearing through the league on a 23-3-2 mark, the Devils found themselves in the fight for a playoff spot as they sat six points out of eighth-place.

As the stretch drive began, though, the Devils' improbable run slowed, and it started to look grim as teams puled away from the Devils in the standings. A recent 1-4-1 stretch put the Devils on life support, and the Canadiens pulled the plug with their 3-1 win tonight, thereby eliminating the Devils mathematically from the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The bright spot in this game was the return of Zach Parise from a knee injury after a four-month absence. Parise didn't factor in on the lone New Jersey goal, but he did record two shots in 21 minutes of action.

Said Parise, "Mentally I felt great. Physically for the first part of the first period I felt like I didn't belong out there. I felt more comfortable as the game went on."

It's nice to see Parise back on the ice, and I'm really glad he's past the knee problems he was having. Parise is one of the heart-and-soul Devils, and they really missed his presence on the ice this season. If the Devils could have had Parise all season, we might be talking about them competing for sixth-, seventh-, or even eighth-place in the Eastern Conference, but injuries are part of the game. Just ask Pittsburgh - they have struggled with Crosby and Malkin. Would they be first in the Eastern Conference if both players hadn't gone down with injury?

In any case, the Devils will start anew next season on building a new streak of consecutive playoff appearances. They have enough talent to be there next season if they can catch a few breaks in the injury department and can continue playing as well as they did over the months of January and February. It's not hard to believe that there could be as many as four Atlantic Division teams in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket next season if the Devils can return to their lofty standing.

Wouldn't that be hell for the rest of the Eastern Conference?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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