NEWARK, N.J. — Coach Lindy Ruff said he has never been as disappointed in a crucial game as he was watching the New Jersey Devils‘ humbling 6-1 Game 4 loss at home to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
“That’s a hard one to explain. That’s about as poorly we’ve skated and supported the puck in any game this year,” said Ruff, whose team trails 3-1 in its Eastern Conference second-round series and faces elimination in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Thursday.
Ruff said the cohesion the Devils showed in their 8-4 win against Carolina in Game 3 was missing in action.
“We had guys that just went rogue. You can call that lack of experience. Even the power play turned into one man trying to do something and the next guy trying to do something,” he said. “There was no team effort. We weren’t good.”
Ruff said the effort reminded him of the first two losses of this series, as the Devils couldn’t build on the momentum from their Game 7 win over the rival New York Rangers and were outscored 11-2 by Carolina.
“I look at the way we played after Game 7 and it resembled some of this. Are we having a tough time dealing with a little bit of success? Play a really good game, and then you bounce back with a game like that?” he said. “Playoffs are hard. We didn’t make it to a high enough level to win a hockey game tonight.”
For the first half of the opening period, New Jersey looked like the team that rolled in Game 3, using speed and pinpoint breakouts to keep the Hurricanes on their heels. The Devils took a 1-0 lead on a Jack Hughes goal just 1:55 into Game 4.
But then things started to change. Carolina’s forecheck got going. The Devils’ breakouts were as sloppy as their neutral zone had become. Martin Necas tied the game at 1-1 with 2:20 left in the period. The vibe was shifting.
“We played great the first period. I don’t know what happened in second period,” goaltender Vitek Vanecek said.
The Devils goalie gave up a second goal to Necas at 7:26 of the second period, and then the onslaught was on. Defenseman Brett Pesce, forward Jesper Fast and defenseman Brent Burns all scored goals to build a 5-1 lead. In total, the Hurricanes scored four goals in 5:20 to chase Vanecek (five goals on 17 shots), who was pulled for rookie Akira Schmid, the goalie who started the first two losses of the series.
“If you look at how we played and what we gave up, I don’t think we should point the finger at the goaltender,” Ruff said of Vanecek. “Even if he gave us a fabulous effort, we didn’t skate well enough to really generate anything after that first period.”
The Devils were zombified after the Hurricanes took the lead.
“We just stopped playing,” captain Nico Hischier said.
“We got the wind taken out of our sails really bad there in the second period and it was unfortunate,” defenseman Damon Severson said. “We’re in the second round of the playoffs. Now we’re facing elimination. There wasn’t any pushback from us. It’s not fun losing that way. We didn’t give our fans something to cheer about tonight. So that’s on us.”
When the Devils lose in the playoffs, they lose big. They’ve been outscored in their six losses to the Rangers and Hurricanes by a count of 32-7.
“We get down and then every game’s kind of been like that for us. Just grows and grows. We started pretty good in the first period and then the late goal gave them some juice. And then they took it to us,” defenseman Dougie Hamilton said.
After their Game 3 loss, the Hurricanes not only responded with more effort but with tactical changes that didn’t allow the Devils to get to their speed game.
“It turned into a game of pingpong. Didn’t you see it there,” Ruff asked. “They got guys out of the zone. We got guys out of the zone. Their game was similar to our game. Try to spread the zone out. But again, it comes down to battles. It’s not tactical. Win your battles. Move your feet.”
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour was happy with the way his team limited the Devils’ chances.
“We didn’t come here to win one game. We came here to win them both. But we didn’t,” he said. “But the guys understand that it goes like this sometimes. It’s always about how you respond.”
Now it’s on the Devils to respond on Thursday night — or their season ends.
“It definitely sucks, but no time for feeling sorry about ourselves. Got to regroup, fast,” Hischier said.
‘Hard one to explain’: Ruff blasts Devils after Game 4 loss