Tonight's 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs was costly in multiple ways for the Devils.
First, it cost them a chance to clinch the Atlantic Division title. They still need one point in their final two games after Philadelphia rallied to defeat Florida, 2-1, tonight.
Second, it probably cost them a chance at finishing second in the Eastern Conference. With Washington defeating Atlanta, 4-2, tonight, the Devils now trail the Capitals by four points with two games remaining, the Capitals need only one point in their final two games against Tampa Bay and Florida.
The Devils finish with a game Thursday in Ottawa and Saturday afternoon at home against Carolina.
It now looks like they will play Carolina, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia in the first round. The Rangers can finish no higher than the seventh seed.
With just two wins in their last nine games (2-6-1), the Devils are headed in the wrong direction at the worst time of the year.
"It's defiinitely a concern," Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "The teams that are getting into the playoffs -- Carolina pounded the Islanders (9-0) and Pittsburgh winning (6-4 over Tampa Bay) -- everyone around is revving up and playing well and we have to find a way to do the same. We've got two games left and we have to find a way to get a win in both of those."
The Devils appeared to be rebounding from their six-game losing streak, but tonight's loss raises some red flags.
"We felt we were building something for a couple of games," right wing Brendan Shanahan said. "This is a setback. We've got to get back at it (Thursday)."
Athough some players and even head coach Brent Sutter pointed to the Devils' 48-18 shots advantage as evidence that they didn't play a completely terrible game, others knew the shots were meaningless when you lose to a team like the Maple Leafs, who are in last place in the Northeast Division and not anywhere near the playoff race.
"I look at as we lost another games that we shouldn't be losing," Langnebrunner said. "It doesn't matter how many shots we had."
A span of nearly nine minutes in the first period was the Devils' downfall tonight. The Leafs got goals from Mikhail Grabovski, Jeff Hamilton and Christan Hanson during that span to grab a 3-0 lead.
The first one happened after errant backpass by Bobby Holik into the defensive zone. Then Colin White lost coverage in the defensive zone and Mike Mottau nearly covered for him by blocking a Grabovski's pass out of the corner, but couldn't control the bouncing puck, which Grabovski got back and fired past Martin Brodeur.
The second goal came after a bad outlet pass by Andy Greene resulted in a turnover in the neutral zone. The Leafs counterattacked and Hamilton scored on the rush.
On the third goal, Hanson, the son of Hanson brother, Dave, of Slap Shot fame, was left unchecked in front to put away the rebound of a Jason Blake backhand.
"They're mistakes that can't be made," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "You can't do it this time of year. Three straight goals, you can't let it happen."
The Devils had differing opinions on how well Leafs goaltender Martin Gerber played.
Sutter said, "Their goalie was the first start of the game tonight."
Gerber did make a few very good saves, but there were other chances the Devils either missed on, the puck trickled wide (Travis Zajac's shot on the 5-on-3) or they simply hit him with the puck.
That contributed greatly to the Devils going just 1-for-6 on the power play.
"It was just one of those nights where I don't necessarily think Gerber was making great saves, but he just sort of had the luck on his side," Shanahan said. "I think we did a lot of good things on the power plays, actually. We got good entries, good control. It was just one of those things where we had lots of shots on goal, lots of traffic. But we just didn't get to the loose pucks. We didn't put in rebounds. We had scoring chances we just didn't finish.
"I thought the power plays were actually pretty good. The only thing we didn't do was just finish the play correctly."
Gerber robbed Shanahan with his left arm during the 5-on-3 advantage in the final minute of the frirst period.
"I think he trapped it between his arm and his body," Shanahan said. "I don't even think he knew where it was. He was looking around for it. We were all looking around for it."