Welcome to the Garden State. If you look to your left, you can see the Devils collapsing. Don't pay it any mind. It's just a bit of history repeating.
New Jersey's team has lost five in a row and six of their last seven. A team which not too long ago appeared not only a safe bet to take the East's No. 1 seed but represent it in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils now hold a tenuous divisional lead over the Flyers and could even, at worst, open the first round on the road. If you're a Devils fan, the most frightening part of all of this is that this slump mirrors last season's finish.
On this day last year, April 1, the Devils were preparing for a game against the Islanders. Though they won their previous game, a contest against the Flyers, they had lost the five before that. The Devils beat the Islanders that night, finishing the season's final five with a 4-1 mark, but all four wins needed to go beyond regulation. The five-game losing streak that stretched from March 19 to March 27 last season piled six feet of dirt onto the Devils; the season's final five games were a last breath, not the team unburying itself. In one of the more humiliating performances in team history, they were dispatched easily by the Rangers in a five-game first round series.
At the time, a number of fingers were pointed because of the collapse. One at Brent Sutter, who in his first season as an NHL coach was thought to have run the team ragged with his practice methods and sacrificed chemistry with overzealous shifting of lines. One at Martin Brodeur, whose insistence on playing 70+ games a season some considered selfish when he appeared obviously run-down late in the season and in the playoffs. One at Patrik Elias, who was having arguably his worst season as a pro and not living up to his offensive reputation. Another at the situation, as the cap-strapped Devils were restricted financially; playing with a first-year coach; transitioning personnel-wise; and "enjoying" their first season at the Prudential Center, the delayed opening of which forced the team to disorientingly play its first nine games of the season on the road.
So whose fault is it this year?
By all accounts, Sutter has grown and become more patient and as a coach, trusting his lineup to police itself through the ebbs and flows of the season. Brodeur missed 50 games due to injury, so conditioning isn't a factor this year. Elias has scored 31 goals in a bounceback season. And the Devils had the luxury of money to spend in free agency as well as greater comfort in their arena and with their coach. Yet the Devils have fallen even further this season; though their position in the standings is better, they were by no means as dominant last season as they were for a very large stretch this year.
One thing's for certain -- Sutter think's the problem lies on the ice, not behind the bench, and apparently Lou Lamoriello agrees.
"Lou (Lamoriello) and I are on the same page on this and we're both firm on this is the way it has to get done and we're expecting the players to do it. It has to be done. We have to get through it and we have to work through it."
Anyone expecting another of Lamoriello's infamous late-season coaching changes shouldn't hold their breath; though these collapses have marred Sutter's first two seasons in New Jersey, the players are going to be charged with turning this around. We don't have to look too far back in time to see what could likely happen if they don't.