The New Jersey Devils’ breakout season came to a bitter end with a 3–2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 of their second round series, giving the Hurricanes a 4–1 series lead.
New Jersey smashed all expectations this season, with a 49-point increase from last season tying an NHL record, With players such as Jack Hughes emerging as stars, the Devils had their best regular season ever with 112 points. Things looked dire after being down 2–0 in their first round series against the rival New York Rangers, but they showed their resolve and stormed back to win the series in seven.
However, the series against the Hurricanes showed that the Devils still have work to do (and I’m really bad at making predictions). Carolina was the better team for most of the series, with three of its four wins coming in blowouts. Even with a close Game 5, the Hurricanes still controlled the game in the third period and overtime.
There are many reasons why the Devils lost this series, but these are the three most important blunders.
3. Ineffective power play
Special teams are extremely important in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and New Jersey just didn’t do enough to win this series. The Devils’ penalty kill was decent at 10-for-12 (83%) with shorthanded goals, but their power play was terrible.
The Devils’ power play success rate was very similar to the Hurricanes, 2-for-12 (16.7%). The difference is that the Devils allowed three shorthanded goals, so their net power play percentage was in the negative. Granted, all three of those goals happened in Game 3, which New Jersey won handily 8-4, so it could have been worse. However, the Devils’ inability to take advantage of their opportunities cost them dearly in the series.
However, this issue did not come up in the series itself. The Devils had a similar power play percentage in Round 1 against the Rangers, going 4-for-24. The Hurricanes have shut down the Devils’ power play all season long. During the regular season, Carolina outscored New Jersey, 7–2, with the Devils holding the man advantage.
2. Poor defense and goal setting
The Devils struggled to hold off the Rangers in their first round series until an unlikely hero emerged. Rookie goaltender Akira Schmid took over the reins from Vitek Vanček in Game 3 and stopped 135 of 142 shots for a .950 save percentage. He looked shaky in Game 6 with five goals allowed, but was pretty good for the other four games he started. The Devils’ defense in front of him also improved as the series progressed, with Schmidt leading the Devils’ comeback.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, no such hero came to the rescue this time. The Devils started Schmid in the first two games but pulled him in both. Vanacek then started Games 3 and 4 but was later pulled as well. Schmidt then started Game 5, and while he played valiantly with 36 saves on 39 shots, it was too little, too late.
Of course, goalkeepers can’t get all the blame when the defense in front of them doesn’t catch on. New Jersey was much more turnover-prone in this series, with 71 turnovers to Carolina’s 41. The low point came in Game 4, when the Devils made 26 turnovers and only forced two of their own. Prime Martin Brodeur could have been in net, and it wouldn’t have mattered how many times the Devils turned the puck over.
1. Inability to control the speed of play
To understand this point, it is necessary to understand the difference in style of play between these teams. New Jersey prefers to play a fast paced game with a deadly attack away from the crowd, while Carolina prefers a slower style and scores most of its goals on sustained pressure. Going into this series it was clear that whichever team can control the pace, will hold the edge.
The Hurricanes were the ones controlling the pace for most of the series. The Devils rarely found an odd-man rush in their favor and struggled to score because of it. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes looked far more comfortable as they were able to keep the puck in the offensive zone and play to their strengths.
This goes to show how important it is to be successful in a variety of sports. To reach the level of a true contender, the Devils must be able to do the same.