NEWARK, NJ – A professional hockey game lasts 60 minutes, but for the New Jersey Devils, it seemed the match against the Toronto Maple Leafs was over after only 20 minutes had been completed.
Toronto scored three goals in the first period off of Devils miscues to start them on a 4-1 victory in Newark.
“Three straight goals, you can’t let it happen,” coach Brent Sutter said.
The Devils outshot the Maple Leafs 48-18, but turnovers in their own zone and solid play by Toronto goalie Martin Gerber prevented New Jersey from winning a team-record 50th game and clinching the Atlantic Division.
Half-way through the first period, defenseman Colin White was unable to clear the puck out from behind goaltender Martin Brodeur. His giveaway ended up in the glove of Mikhail Grabovski, who dropped the puck and scored from the slot.
Moments later, Brian Rolston turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and Boyd Devereaux swooped in to grab it. Devereaux fed Jamal Mayers in the middle of the ice, and Mayers slid the puck over to Jeffrey Hamilton, who fired into the top right corner of the net.
The third Maple Leaf goal came at 15:56 of the first, when Christian Hanson scored on a weak-side rebound off of a shot by Jason Blake. There was not a single red jersey surrounding Hanson, whose tally was the first of his career.
“When someone makes a mistake, you try to bail them out. Today it wasn’t the case,” Brodeur said.
Toronto gave New Jersey an ample opportunity to end the period on a positive note when, while Luke Schenn was already in the penalty box for tripping Bobby Holik, Jay Harrison got a high-stick under Brian Gionta’s visor, drawing blood. Harrison took the automatic four-minute double-minor penalty, giving the Devils a 5-on-3 advantage for 37 seconds.
New Jersey fired several shots against Gerber, and Brendan Shanahan had two open looks at the net, but shot into the only part of the net being blocked by Gerber.
“I’m sure Shanny would want that one back on the 5-on-3,” Langenbrunner said.
The restless fans showed their displeasure at the home team not capitalizing on a golden opportunity, although hope was restored in the second period, while Harrison was still in the penalty box.
Paul Martin poked the puck out from a Leaf, and fed Jamie Langenbrunner in the right circle. With two seconds remaining on the power play, Langenbrunner found an opening and slid the puck five-hole under Gerber.
“We definitely still had a mountain to climb, but we were heading in the right direction. We had been shooting pretty well and creating some opportunities, making them taking penalties. We thought we were ready for the third period, thinking we’d shut them down and go. And then we made a mistake that ended up in our head again, and from there it was definitely tough sledding,” Langenbrunner said.
That fourth goal came 1:34 into the third period when defensemen Johnny Oduya and Mike Mottau were caught up behind the net, and another failed clear-out turned into a goal.
Niklas Hagman passed the loose puck out from behind Brodeur to John Mitchell, who was waiting at the left post for an easy shot.
“I missed the shot. I was moving but it slid between my pads,” Brodeur explained.
Despite outshooting the Leafs 13-4 in the final period, New Jersey lost a chance to take more momentum into the playoffs.
The Devils’ disappointment in their play hung over the locker room, as well as a feeling of apprehension about the post season.
“Right now, we’re not thinking about clinching the division, we’re thinking about not playing well enough to be two games from the playoffs,” Holik said. “Winning the division important? Yeah. Playing well in the playoffs more important? Yeah … Right now we have more on our plate than just winning the division.”
The final two courses on the Devils’ plate are an away game in Ottawa on Thursday and the regular-season finale at home against Carolina Saturday afternoon.
Currently, New Jersey is sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference, and would match up against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, but there is still a possibility Carolina or Philadelphia could be in the sixth spot.
Against any of those teams, for a chance to win, New Jersey will need to find a way to play 60 good minutes of hockey again like they did for most of the regular season.