Time is running out for the New Jersey Devils.
The defending Eastern Conference champions are winless in their last seven games (0-3-4) and have gone just 2-7 in shootouts so far this season, including Sunday night's 3-2 SO loss at Buffalo.
It's a far cry from last season, when New Jersey finished a league-best 12-4 in the post-overtime extra session. Of course, they also had shootout specialist and currently-injured superstar Ilya Kovalchuk fully functional last year, who decided seven of those games among his 11 shootout goals.
Kovalchuk has been sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered last month against the Florida Panthers at the Prudential Center, but he's expected to start skating again soon. Ironically, the Florida game marked the last time the Devils won, a 2-1 victory on March 23.
"Last year, we lived on it (shootouts) and this year it’s really hurting us," said Devils head coach Pete DeBoer at NJ.com following the loss at Buffalo, New Jersey's seventh straight setback. "It’s frustrating. I was proud of our effort and how hard we worked. But again, we leave points on the table."
An extra seven points would put the Devils, now sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings and two points out of a playoff spot, comfortably in fifth place with 47 points. Instead, they're 15-14-10 overall, tied with Winnipeg at 40 points and looking to leapfrog both the local rivals New York Rangers and New York Islanders for a playoff position with just nine regular season games remaining in this lockout-shortened 2013 season.
New Jersey's longest winless streak since early in 1986 has even normally stoic goaltender Martin Brodeur concerned.
"It’s really concerning that we can’t win," Brodeur said. "We played one of the teams that we should beat. I thought we deserved to beat them the way we played. But you don’t get goals for hanging onto the puck for 25 minutes a game. We drained them but we couldn't take advantage of it."
The Devils dominated Buffalo for long stretches on Sunday night at First Niagara Arena, outshooting the Sabres by a 37-22 margin. One night after a 2-1 loss at Toronto, and three nights after a 1-0 loss at Boston, however, they could manage no more two goals.
The first was a power-play strike by Steve Sullivan, his first score in a Devils uniform since his first stint with the team ended in 1997. The second was a shorthanded tally by Mark Fayne, set up by a yeoman effort by recently returned Dainius Zubrus, before the Devils went scoreless in the shootout. Patrik Elias may have been tripped on his shootout attempt by Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, but the puck still stayed out, and the Devils again went down to defeat after Buffalo's Nathan Grebe scored the only goal in the shootout.
"We can’t look back. Right now, we’re in a playoff hunt," said Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello at the Fire & Ice blog. "This is nothing new. We’ve got to just continue do what we’re doing and not worry about the end result. Let that take care of itself.”
If it doesn't in the next 19 days, the Devils will be looking in on the outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in three years.