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The Devils Are In Hell

Florida Panthers center Eetu Luostarinen (27) celebrates with Florida Panthers center Evan Rodrigues (17) after scoring a goal
Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NEWARK, N.J. — It's fitting that the "Devils DJ Song Of The Game" at the arena in Newark on Tuesday night was "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence. The New Jersey Devils badly needed someone to save them from the nothing they've become—12th in the East, playoff hopes dimming by the shift—and this game happened to be a rare opportunity for an in-season reboot. There was potential for the new-coach bump after Lindy Ruff got axed, plus a rest advantage as the formidable Florida Panthers entered having just beaten the Rangers on Monday. But against a team that earned 20 fewer points than they did last season, the Devils again fell flat, allowing two goals in the first seven minutes to set up an eventual 5-3 defeat.

It's silly to expect Travis Green, the assistant elevated to interim head coach, to instantly have all the answers. His only head coaching experience, after all, was a very mediocre stint in Vancouver. But it's infuriating how a team that boasted so much fun young talent in a breakout run a year ago has collapsed into such a mess. The Devils are so night-and-day different from the 2022–23 model that it is tempting to believe that there is some secret switch to be flipped that will get them back to where they were. But their problems are too numerous.

The goaltending is built on a fault line, as last year's starter Vítek Vaněček and playoff hero Akira Schmid have both endured significant drop-offs in their puck-stopping. Dougie Hamilton, last year's top defender and arguable team MVP, has been out with an injury since the end of November. Veteran blue-liners Ryan Graves and Damon Severson also left in the offseason. Premium signing Timo Meier, who in San Jose displayed a very obvious talent for scoring even on a terrible team, has gotten lost. And out of the roster's young core acquired through years of missed postseasons, the ones at the top—Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier—are hitting a wall while others, like Dawson Mercer and Alexander Holtz, are still unproven. Developing draft picks is rarely a linear process, and it takes time for all players to figure out how to handle the NHL grind, but knowing that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to accept when a guy seemingly climbing the staircase to superstardom suddenly flings himself over the banister.

All of that is to say, I think the "keys to the game" might have been a little inadequate on Tuesday:

"Cat's Keys" are "Bring the compete" and "Elevate the offense"

The Devils dropped the compete as they stepped out of the car on their way into the building, shrinking into that early 2-0 hole. The game that followed was tense and competitive and often fun, but never one in which the home team looked like the better squad. They played jittery hockey, lacking a crispness on their passes or puck movement that understood where their teammates were on the ice. The Panthers, if they had tired legs, didn't show it, presenting instead a carnivorous defense that clogged lanes and rarely gave the Devils more than a split-second to make a decision. A Jersey turnover at their own blue line and then, soon after, a gaping hole in the penalty kill led to the Panthers' opening salvo.

"When you go down 2-0 early, it definitely puts you behind," Jack Hughes observed after the game.

At least the high-paid scorers stepped up in response. Hughes, with the man advantage, got a shot from the point through back-up goalie Anthony Stolarz, then Meier, who has now scored in three straight Devil losses, showed a flash of the extraordinary in the second when he bullied his way through crease traffic to knock the puck in for a game-tying goal.

Florida snapped back into themselves, however, with a too-easy trip into the slot for Eetu Luostarinen to score 90 seconds later, and in the third, certified pest Nick Cousins picked up just his fifth of the year on a deflection. Fans started to bail at 4-2 with 10 minutes remaining, but journeyman defenseman Colin Miller slipped a long wrister through a forest of skates to at least postpone the funeral. From there, the Devils arena staff brought out the big guns—a clip of Christopher Moltisanti in a neckbrace ranting about Scarface—but it wasn't enough. The Panthers got the empty-netter to further establish their place at the top and the Devils' place well south of there.

The trade deadline comes Friday afternoon, and the rumors point to the Devils not being quite ready to give up yet. Tyler Toffoli, their 31-year-old top scorer who will be a free agent this offseason, is allegedly not for sale, while the team is supposedly sniffing around for a quick fix to its goalie woes. I love a front office that maintains its belief in its ability to win, and I know the Devils are mathematically still able to make something of this season. But watching New Jersey struggle to hold onto the puck as their own fans booed them, it was tough not to take a glass-half-empty attitude. The takeaway from Travis Green's first night on the job was not that the Devils hung with the best team in hockey and just missed a point; it's that they looked lucky to even stay within spitting distance.

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