Crunch time has come earlier than the New Jersey Devils expected.
On the cusp of a playoff berth after winning five of seven games coming out of the Olympic break, the Devils are suddenly in trouble after losing games in Florida to the Panthers and Lightning over the weekend.
With 14 games left in the regular season, the Devils are five points behind the Rangers for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. While the Devils can take solace playing four games at home in the next six days, the stretch might be one of the toughest of the season.
The conference-leading Boston Bruins will be at the Prudential Center on Tuesday. The Minnesota Wild are there Thursday, followed by the Rangers on Saturday and the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday. All four are currently in a playoff spots.
"This is no time of the year to feel sorry for yourself," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said Monday after practice. "If you don't pick yourself up, no one else is going to do it for you around the league. We recognize that and we know how important the week is."
The Devils have played better at home, posting a 16-8-7 mark at "The Rock." They also own a win over the Bruins in Boston and have beaten the Rangers three of four times. Minnesota is 1-0 against New Jersey, and Toronto has two shootout wins.
Goaltender Marty Brodeur said the Devils need to do a much better job paying attention to details this week. They turned over the puck way too much on the Florida trip and it cost them a third-period lead against the Panthers, who are next to last in the conference.
"When you freelance a little bit out there, you are going to pay the price and we played the price dearly in these two games, two important games for us," Brodeur said. "So the margin of error becomes a little smaller now every game we don't win. We just have that attitude to just play hockey and play like it's our last game. That's what we had been doing after the break, and just this weekend was out of character."
Most of the Devils downplayed the idea they should have beaten the Panthers, adding that the parity in the league makes no game an easy win.
Forward Dainius Zubrus said the Devils need to learn from this weekend, or else they are going to miss the playoffs for the second straight season and for the third time in four years.
"The games are over in Florida, and I respect my opponent, but I don't think we played our best," Zubrus said. "In a way, I think we beat ourselves. That's not how winning hockey is played and we need to learn from that. Saying that, I still think there are lots of games to play. We have done pretty good at home and we have a lot more games at home than the road (10 home, 4 away). It should help us, but that won't matter if we don't win."
Center Jaromir Jagr was more troubled by the loss to the Panthers than to the Lightning. The Devils had control of the game against the Panthers and didn't finish. The Lightning was the better team, he said.
"A day like today it's a little bit easier to pick yourself up because we didn't play," Jagr said after the Devils' short practice. "The best medicine for this is to win the hockey game. There is no other way. "
New Jersey won't be intimidated by the tough schedule ahead, and that there is no panic.
"We've shown when we do play the way we like to play, the way the coaches want us to play, we're a tough team to beat," Brodeur said. "You're not going to win every game, but we have enough character guys to play these teams solidly."
"We're still breathing. We're still there. Until they tell us we can't make it, we're going to go out there with the attitude that we're going to go out and make it."