If you're a New Jersey Devils fan (like me) and the calendar reads April 1 (which it does) and your team has one win in its last seven games (which they have), then there's going to be one question your puckhead friends will begin to ask: "So when does Lou take over as coach?"
Ha, ha ... heh ... sigh. Sound of bottle of scotch opening.
This scenario plays on the mind of anyone tangentially associated with the Devils, from the fans on message boards to the reporters in the press box. The good news is that Sutter has at least two days to turn this around; Lou Lamoriello waited until April 3 to fire Claude Julien, who now smiles down on the Devils from an unreachable summit in the Eastern Conference.
The cynical pessimist in me naturally assumes that Sutter's potential departure as head coach this summer for the creature comforts of Red Deer could be moved up with a spiraling losing streak -- one that, frankly, should continue tonight with Patrik Elias out of the lineup against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nothing like playing minus your second-leading scorer when you've managed only six goals in the last five games.
Panic has set in for the Devils and also over in the Windy City, where the Chicago Blackhawks continue their descent in the standings. In both cases, some concern is certainly warranted; but how much of this is simply slumping at the wrong time, and how much of this is a harbinger of doom for their postseason chances?
In the Devils' case, Sutter has gone public with his fuming about their lackluster play and the lack of leadership from his veteran players. From the Star Ledger:
"I've been pretty positive through this, trusting the group that they're going to get through it," Sutter said before the Devils left Newark for Pittsburgh, where they face the Penguins Wednesday night. "But now it's time. I mean, the foot is down. ... Enough's enough.
"The message is very clear: This is the way it has to be done. Sometimes it's a hard thing to hear, but it's the facts; it's the truth, and it has to be done."
"They're a very experienced leadership group and there's a lot of experience in that room -- guys that have won Cups," he continued. "And that's all fine and dandy, but it's what you do today that matters. It's not what you did back whenever.
"Whatever we did in November, whatever we did in December, whatever we did in January, February -- right now, it's really irrelevant."
So what's changed from earlier this season? The return of Martin Brodeur. They've become lax on defense, fat and happy that their star keeper is back there to clean up the mess. The Devils are 19th in the NHL in shots allowed; Brodeur, during the losing streak, has faced over 30 shots four times and over 40 twice. Scott Clemmensen faced over 40 shots once in 39 games started for the Devils.
As John Fischer of In Lou We Trust writes, the Devils have to tighten it up:
The Devils need to be aggressive and win the battles to do more than just put a shot on net, but dictate the flow of the game. The defense can't just say, "Hey, Marty, get ready to stop 30-40 shots tonight!" and just clean up rebounds; but they have to challenge the puck carrier. In the transition game, the Devils can't just go with the flow, they got to get back to working hard to stop the opposition in the neutral zone so they can't even set something up.
So that's a fairly obvious fix for the Devils. What about the Blackhawks? Cristobal Huet didn't get much support from them in losing to Montreal last night, and the Chicago Sun-Times wondered if it was "another indication a good season might be fading away."
March wasn't kind to the Hawks, who surged a little when Patrick Sharp returned to the lineup before slumping again. They've scored one goal in their last two games and face a foaming-at-the-mouth playoff hungry St. Louis Blues team this evening at home.
Are their problems as obvious as the Devils'? Second City Hockey believes so:
The Hawks have been pretty terrible against their Central Division rivals and that's all we see from now til the playoffs. It's every team twice home and away except the Blues who the Hawks will only see at home tonight.
The Hawks will need adapt to teams changing the style of play - the league seems to have figured out that if you put pressure on the defense and keep everyone to the outside the Hawks are easily thrown off their game. That's fine, the Hawks just need to find a way to adapt to that too.
This is true. In watching some Hawks hockey lately, their defensemen have been overwhelmed in their own zone too often. But again, that's a manageable fix.
So yeah, there's some panic in Jersey and Chicago. Maybe even a bit more of the losses mount and they end up with less-than-favorable first-round matchups (against, say, the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively). But real panic is being down 2-0 in a playoff series; and the bottom line is that both of these teams aren't fighting for their playoff lives right now.