- The New Jersey Devils have now lost three games in a row, marking their first losing streak of the young season. Head coach John Hynes hopes to avoid another season-crushing collapse.
NEWARK, New Jersey — Relentless rain trickled down over Prudential Center on Tuesday night. The temperature dipped into the low 40s as drizzle descended and periodically picked up into a severe shower. Fans who braved the soggy conditions huddled into “The Rock” clad in classic Devils red and black colors.
While their supporters likely stayed chilled in the crisp confines of the arena, the Devils also went cold in a lackluster 3-1 loss to the visiting St. Louis Blues. The indicators of an impending northeastern winter weren’t enough to cool off the Blues (12-3-1), who traveled to Jersey with the most points in the Western Conference and departed on top of the entire NHL. St. Louis—with eight wins in its last 10 games—is as hot as the mascot that bears New Jersey’s namesake.
The Devils, meanwhile, relinquished their Metropolitan Division lead for the first time this season. New Jersey (9-4-1) started with nine wins in its first 11 games but has since lost three in a row, including an overtime defeat in Ottawa. The Blues outclassed the younger Devils down the stretch, owning their opposition in shots on goal by a margin of 19-4 in the third period. Devils head coach John Hynes, now in his third season with the team, said the Blues presented New Jersey with a maturity test—and his team failed.
“They have a mature and experienced group that understands how to win and how they need to play,” Hynes said. “They don’t really waver through the game. And for us, we were a little bit up and down tonight. That’s a big difference when you realize you don’t have the momentum or your game isn’t where it needs to be.”
Hynes’s team neglected to parade poise last season, too. The 2016-17 squad accumulated an identical number of points (19) through 14 games as the team currently has through the same quantity of tilts. The Devils went on to finish in the Eastern Conference cellar, with eight fewer points than the second-to-last Buffalo Sabres.
A season filled with growing pains, a 10-game losing streak and two total wins in the month of March ended with the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL draft. The Devils welcomed 18-year-old Nico Hischier to New Jersey with the selection. How good is the youngster? He centers the Devils’ top line, with former top draft pick Taylor Hall and 2016 sixth-round choice Jesper Bratt on the wings. Each player has double-digit point totals thus far and represent much of the reason long-time Devils defenseman and current captain Andy Greene remains confident that his team will avoid a collapse like last year’s.
“Different year, different team, different players,” Greene said. “We’re a better team. We have better players—and that’s nothing against last year’s [team]. We just got a more mentally strong group in here. We’re going to nip this slide right here.”
Greene, a staple on the Devils’s blue line since 2007, has been around for both beautiful and bleak days in New Jersey. The Devils eclipsed 100 points in four of his first six seasons and made a run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, a year in which the team mustered 102 points. Since then, the Devils have failed to reach the century mark in five tries.
Goaltender Cory Schneider has been in Jersey for four of those attempts. All he knows as a Devil is losing, but that’s not his fault. The 31-year-old from Massachusetts boats a 2.35 goals against average and a .919 save percentage in his four seasons with the team. Both numbers are a bit off of those marks this year—3.06 and .916. After Tuesday’s loss to St. Louis, he sounded desperate in saying that the team needs to snap its losing streak “before it gets too deep.”
“I think that we just have to keep learning that in this league, it takes one or two plays that can be the difference,” Schneider said. “Especially as we get out of the first month of the season and the rhythm sets in, there are gonna be more nights like tonight where it’s not a lot of open ice. It’s a bit of a grind, and you got to find a way to not be the team that makes a mistake.”
Yes, the Devils have squandered three straight games. But they’re also just one point behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins—with three games in hand. New Jersey sits right in the mix in spite of missing key forwards for extended stretches. Veteran center Travis Zajac has been out since August with a torn left pectoral muscle. Right wing Kyle Palmieri got off to a point-per-game start through seven contests before missing the last seven with a lower-body injury. Former Washington Capitals center Marcus Johansson has missed the last four with a concussion. Veteran center Brian Boyle played his first game as a Devil last week, a month and a half after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Injuries affected the Devils during last year’s meltdown as well. This year’s leading scorer, Hall, missed 10 games in the early going a season ago with lower body injuries. New Jersey only won three of those matchups. Greene missed 16 games later in the season with a wrist injury, and the Devils emerged victorious in just five of them. The injury bug has clearly infiltrated the Devils’s locker room for extended periods, but Hynes said that’s no reason to crumple like they have.
“You have to play and find a way to win with whatever group you have,” Hynes said. “We can have guys come back in our lineup and we need to play a certain way to be able to give ourselves a chance to win. We could have guys out of our lineup and—every game is a different entity. It doesn’t matter who’s in or who’s out. You have to find a way. Guys have to step up and play, and that’s what our focus is. Our focus is the guys we do have in the lineup, not the guys we don’t.”
Hynes said that Boyle, who has been in the lineup for four games now, played his best of the season against the Blues. But for a proven veteran in his 11th campaign, Boyle said his best still wasn’t good enough. He quietly vented frustration to a herd of media in the Devils' locker room minutes after the loss, condemning the team for a lack of chances in the second and third periods in which St. Louis out-shot New Jersey 30-13.
“I've got to take ownership,” Boyle, who recorded just over 16 minutes of ice time Tuesday night, said. “You know, I had some power play chances, and a couple plays died on my stick.”
Boyle said the loss should come as a learning experience for the Devils. Boyle himself has learned plenty of lessons throughout his career. He logged 106 playoff games with the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. He lost in the Cup Final in back-to-back seasons with the Rangers in 2014 and Lightning in 2015. Boyle knows what it’s like to win, a peculiar presence in a youthful Devils locker room. The average age of Wednesday’s skaters came in at just under 26 years old. Only eight players other than Boyle who laced them up against the Blues have playoff experience.
Boyle has been around long enough to know when a team has what it takes to stay in the playoff hunt. He said that from what he saw watching his teammates from home during the first month of the season, the Devils have a chance to stay near the top of the standings when the the push for the playoffs commences months from now.
“We built a pretty good resume in the first 10 games for a reason,” Boyle said. “I don’t think that’s an accident or a fluke.”
If the Devils are more than merely masking their youth and are displaying their true capabilities, then they can play with anybody. They took the best team in the league deep into the third period Wednesday before slightly succumbing to the Blues’ scintillating style of play. They triumphed over Tampa Bay, tied for the second-most points in the league, in mid-October in a thrilling come-from-behind victory. Yet here they are, trying to elude the early season demise that they fell victim to a year ago when they lost 17 of their final 22 games before the calendar flipped to 2017.
Hynes said he doesn’t pay any attention to what happened last year. He doesn’t gaze into the future, either. His focus is on transforming the Devils from a pretender to a contender right now. He circled back to a word his inexperienced club must embody if it wishes to shed it’s demons and be a factor in the spring: maturity. Without it, the Devils will fold once more. With it, they have the talent to flourish.
“We have lots of young players, but it also comes to a mentality and an understanding quickly that you have to play a certain way and do certain things long enough and hard enough to be able to give yourself a chance to have success as the season continues to go on here,” Hynes said.