The Devils, undisciplined and stunningly flat in key moments in a playoff series against a rival, are now down three games to one to the Flyers after a 4-1 loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday. This is not a perfect team, no doubt. This may not be a top Stanley Cup contender, at the level of the Penguins or Capitals. However, Lou Lamoriello -- inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame six months ago -- did his part. The pieces were in place to compete for a spot in the Eastern Conference Final.
Should the Devils lose Game 5 at home on Thursday or Game 6 at the Wachovia Center on Sunday -- New Jersey is now 0-5 in the Flyers' barn this season -- the failure will fall on the players for getting out-worked 5-on-5 from the first to the fourth lines.
Ultimately, the man most likely to pay the price will be Jacques Lemaire. Lamoriello has made a few curious firings in the past, but the general manager would be right to look for a fresh face and voice behind the bench.
"We have to be more consistent in our work," said Lemaire after the game. "We lost discipline in the second half of the third period. We've got to score more goals." Referring to his team's inability to score a goal 5-on-5 in the two games in Philadelphia, Lemaire said, "That's hard to understand" and spoke of bad bounces.
Through four games, Lemaire -- who, no argument, knows more about hockey than just about everyone in the rink combined -- has been out-coached by Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette. The Flyers have not exactly been a bastion of discipline themselves; the NHL appears to have ushered in the post-Kerry Fraser era by having the referees call everything in the arena closest to Fraser's South Jersey home.
But the Flyers' dominance of the Devils in the crucial third period of Game 3 and second and third periods on Tuesday was a result of a relentless work ethic and executing Laviolette's puck-pursuit system.
What else could Lamoriello have done? Despite some major injuries, the Devils were one of the league's best teams in the first half (take a bow, Coach Lemaire). Strangely enough, when ace defenseman Paul Martin and supreme grinder David Clarkson and Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus re-joined the lineup, New Jersey went south.
Lamoriello responded with a epic, uncharacteristic trade. He acquired star wing Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta for a quartet of assets. In Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, the Devils had two of the NHL's top nine goal scorers. They had two lines to make opponents sweat. "When we got Kovy," said Lemaire, "it changed everything. We had two great offensive lines. Matching up against us became a problem for the other team."
Not for the Flyers, who are a combined 8-2 against New Jersey since October -- including 5-0 at home.
Lemaire and the Devils have suffered the embarrassment of seeing instigator Daniel Carcillo score twice in the last two games. Carcillo has underrated skill, but how can the Devils not be fired up enough to have a body on him at all times?
Passion, pride, spark ... something is missing. Look at the roster constructed by Lamoriello. The ability is there. When New Jersey botched a line change just after falling behind 3-1 early in the third period, it was shocking. These are not your cool uncle's New Jersey Devils.
Asked if his team has played with enough passion this season, goaltender Martin Brodeur said, "At times I feel like we have. But it's been that 60 minutes thing we've had a problem with all season."
Even more tellingly, Brodeur broke down the difference in how each team is executing its system. "The Flyers are keeping everything simple," said Brodeur. "We don't get any odd-man rushes. They're playing pretty safe out there. We're trying the opposite. We're trying to force it. We allowed a couple of 2-on-1s and 3-on-1s in the second and third periods. The score could have been worse."
Now they are one loss away from the Kovalchuk Era becoming the Kovalchuk Experiment. If they lose this series, it's difficult to see Lamoriello re-signing him -- even though he is nowhere near the top of the list of culprits.
The Devils need some old-fashioned inspiration, the kind you don't expect from the tactician Lemaire. Maybe John MacLean, passed over for Lemaire last summer, can be called up from his coaching job with the minor league affiliate in Lowell and deliver a sermon on how the Devils used to routinely get out of the first round. How the Devils used to beat Philadelphia.
"They have to play like there's no tomorrow," Lemaire said before Game 4.
The coach, who has been handed a lineup many in his fraternity would kill for, is going to have to do a lot better than that.