For the New Jersey Devils, today’s game, against the Florida Panthers, is live or die. Their disastrous ten-game skid cost them dearly. Before Thursday’s 3-0 shut out against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Devils hadn’t won a game since March 23.
It was in that last victory that the team lost their million-dollar man, Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk went down near the end of the contest with a shoulder injury after crashing into the boards. While x-rays were negative, the Russian winger would remain on the sidelines for the next ten games. Those consecutive losses would send the team that started the season on fire and atop of the Eastern Conference standings spiraling toward the bottom.
Currently, they are eight points out of the last playoff spot. If they do not earn at least one point against the struggling Panthers, the Devils will be mathematically eliminated from post-season contention with five games remaining. It would be the second time in the past three seasons that the organization would miss the playoffs. Prior to the 2010-11 season, the Devils had a 13-year streak of post season appearances, winning three Stanley Cups during that run.
Many thought last year’s dramatic and unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Finals was a fluke. However, after the club started the lockout-shortened season on a tear, it seemed as though they were bent on proving the naysayers wrong. Then, came two costly losing streaks. A six game one during which Martin Brodeur was sidelined with a pinched nerve in his neck and the recent ten game one where Kovalchuk was out with a shoulder injury.
When Kovalchuk began skating, his teammates were looking for him to come back into the lineup and break the scoring curse that has plagued them for most of the second half of the season. Just about every player save Brodeur has been unable to put the puck over the goal line.
Finally today, the Devils received the news that they had been hoping for. Their Russian savior was coming off of the injured reserve and back onto the ice. His appearance was a breath of fresh air for the team that will be facing their Hudson River rivals, the New York Rangers tomorrow. To say this is a big weekend for the barely breathing Devils is an understatement.
“It’s good to be back in the locker room,” Kovalchuk said in an interview on Tom Gulitti’s Fire and Ice Blog. “We all know the situation we’re in but we still got a chance and we will fight.”
However, the question is whether or not infusing Kovlachuk and his famous one-timer into the lineup will be the difference the Devils need.
It certainly didn’t seem that way though when the Devils opened the game flatter than a pancake and gave up two quick goals. By the end of the first, Patrik Elias had cut the lead to one, but it definitely wasn’t the way the team needed or wanted to start off a must-win game. Elias would knot the game at two with his second of the game and the Devils seemed to find new life.
Before the end of the second, David Clarkson would pop one in to put the team in the lead, a position they haven’t found themselves in very often over the past month. The Devils would add three more and live to breath for another game, making tomorrow’s match up against the Rangers another nail biter.