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Devils’ system flawed come playoff time

Leslie Monteiro

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The Devils were not going 82-0-0 this season. It’s hard to do.

No MLB, NHL or NBA team ever gone undefeated in an entire regular season, and it will never happen in our lifetime. An NFL team can do so, but there’s the luxury of playing once a week unlike the other leagues. A long season and a long week of games wear out a team.

The Devils were going to lose a game this season. It happened Thursday night at Prudential Center after taking a 5-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche to end their four-game homestand and their four-game winning streak to start the season.

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If a Devils fan wants to take something out of this loss, it was their lack of defense in this game. The Avalanche had 34 shots on goal, and that was good enough to generate four goals to go with an empty-netter. The Avs spent too much time in the Devils’ zone, especially in the third period that had them scoring three goals, including the empty-netter.

It’s no wonder Devils head coach John Hynes sounded annoyed at his team in his press conference after the game. He knows that’s not going to win games.

For the Devils to take the next step, they have to play better defensively. It was their undoing when they went down in five games against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. It’s why they are a question mark when it comes to doing anything in the playoffs this season.

Even this great start was not going to change anyone’s perception of the Devils. Yes, we all know they can score. It was why they made the playoffs last season. Since Ray Shero took over as the Devils general manager in 2015, he wanted to build a team that was offensive-oriented and puck-possessing. It’s the way NHL teams are built these days. It’s not what it used to be when the Devils won three Stanley Cups in an era that was defense first.

Still, a team has to be competent on defense at least to win the Stanley Cup. That means knowing how to block shots and making sure the goaltender does not face way too many shots to his liking.

Look, no one is saying the Devils should go back to yesteryear and play the neutral zone trap. It’s not effective anymore since teams are much more faster and smarter. But there is something about forcing a team to not have many shots on a goaltender and clearing the puck so that a team doesn’t have fourth or fifth chances to score. There is always something about shutting down the other team in the third period to finish the game.

It’s easy to blame Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid for what happened in the third period, but if he does not make saves early in the game, this would be a 7-1 blowout in the end with four goals scored in the first period. The defense left Kinkaid to face way too many shots.

This is what the Devils are. A team that does not have the personnel to play defense, Shero and Hynes can talk all they want about the Devils being a complete team, but if the players are not good at it, there’s nothing they can do.

For all the talk about the Devils needing to add more scorers to complement Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, they needed to add several more stay-at-home defenseman this offseason for them to win a playoff series. Scoring was not the reason the Devils were ousted by the Lightning in the playoffs last year.

They needed a rugged defenseman that could wear other players down, and they needed a defenseman that can create turnovers. Maybe Will Butcher can develop into one this year. The key word here is maybe because it’s not a sure thing he can be at his developmental stage.

It just maybe Shero does not think defense wins games in today’s NHL. That’s not true. A competent defense can be a good offense. Plus, there are not that many Martin Brodeurs anymore, so defense has to be vital.

Offense wins games and sells seats, but defense helps a team advance to the next round of the playoffs and a championship. A good defense can make a goaltender’s job easy. A good defense can make a team Stanley Cup contender.

The Devils are an exciting team to watch on a winter night. They are worth the price of admission at Prudential Center. They have guys who are marketable in Montvale’s own Kyle Palmieri, Hall and Hischier. They do a great job promoting their product in New Jersey.

That’s all well and good in the regular season.

But a competent defense would have made a difference between a good regular season team and a good playoff team.

The Devils offense should help them make the playoffs, but their lack of defense makes them a good candidate to be out in the first round.

Thursday night hit that point home.

Leslie Monteiro is a syndicated sports columnist who writes about the Tri-State area teams for the Upstate Courier. He is based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and can be reached on Twitter @MongoGoesInSane.