Originally published April 21, 2013 at Inside Hockey.
In a desperate push to make the playoffs, the Devils thought they had a chance if the universe worked to their advantage in this final week of the regular season. They had Ilya Kovalchuk back in the lineup, and they had finally broken the 666 curse. They were on a roll…but it didn’t last for long.
Kovalchuk had been out of the lineup with an injury for 11 games, the Devils were only able to pick up one win during his absence. That win did not come until the game before his return.
In his first game back, the Devils defeated the Florida Panthers 6-2 after the Panthers took an early lead in the first period on Saturday. Of the six goals, Kovalchuk did not have a single point on any tally.
When asked if he was nervous coming back, Kovalchuk responded, “No. Why would I be nervous? It’s not my first NHL game.”
Following the game, he discussed how he was disappointed in his -1 rating. This is something players do not normally talk about that is bothering them.
“No problems. No pain. Minus-one though,” Kovalchuk said of his performance following the Saturday loss. “You don’t want to be minus when the team wins 6-2. It doesn’t really matter, but still as a line, we want to produce. That’s what the coaches want from us, because they use a chance to play on the PP, it’s a whole different situation. We’ve got to put the puck on net.”
After the win on Saturday, the Devils were on a high note, it was as if the spirit of their game had finally returned. It was a much different atmosphere than the weeks before. They were on a losing streak then. Martin Brodeur was stuck at 666 wins. It was as if this team was playing defeated.
This isn’t the first time the Devils have sunk a bunch of games after losing a key figure in their lineup. Earlier this season, Brodeur sat out of 13 contests with an injury. In that time, the Devils won only three of the 13 contests. This is a pattern that is unheard of for the Devils. In the past, they have always been able to adapt to a key person missing, insert a new person in their spot and everything go back to Devils as usual. This season, they were never able to adjust and it defeated them.
“Every single team goes through that,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s not an excuse. Hockey is a contact sport. Everybody gets injured every once in a while. You’ve got to go through that and find a way how to win. It’s not an excuse.”
“Streaks are really important,” Brodeur said. “You have to have winning streaks. You can’t have losing streaks. That’s what’s going to kill you in a shortened season…The streaks we got really, really hurt us.”
“We’re all proud athletes that want to do well every time,” Brodeur said. “We have a hard time believing the position that we’re in. It makes it a little easier for us to go out and really prove to ourselves that we belong there, but it might not happen. It probably won’t happen. We feel we have a great hockey club and we just want to prove it through the last week of the regular season here.”
They had one last chance to make it into the playoffs on Sunday. They needed to defeat the Rangers, pray the Rangers lost in all of their last remaining games of the season, and hope the Winnipeg Jets did not advance. This was a desperation measure and it backfired for the Devils.
The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-1 on Sunday, ending their rival’s run to the playoffs. The Devils were completely eliminated.
This is such a strange place to be caught in for the Devils. Some would call it the playoff curse. Many teams have seen their first season back after heading to the Stanley Cup Finals end in a bad way. How could this team that was so hard to defeat and went all the way to the Finals end up outside the playoff race? It’s normal if you look at what’s happened to so many teams before them that had an amazing year.
For now, the Devils turn their focus on finishing the season off on the right note. They know there’s no Stanley Cup for them this year. Instead, they’ll just keep trying to do their best and win these last remaining games.
“I’m alive and real,” Brodeur said. “No matter what happens, I’ll be okay.”
The Devils have three games left in the season. They host the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.
“We can’t control our own destinies,” Kovalchuk said. “We’re just going to go out there and try our best every game, work hard every 60 or 65 minutes. We’ll see what’s going to happen.”