EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils didn't wait until the Stanley Cup playoffs to start playing their worst hockey.
This year's disappearing act began in mid-February, and it's changed the perception of the Devils from a Cup contender to a team that seems destined for a fourth straight postseason failure.
"If you are not worried, you have a problem," goaltender Martin Brodeur said after the Devils were embarrassed 5-0 by the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. "I don't think you are going to be able to go into the playoffs and turn it on and play well. We're just not on top of our game coming into the playoffs and we need to be on top of our game. But all you need is a couple of games in the playoffs and you feel invincible."
The Devils had an air of invincibility in the middle of the season, when they went on a 13-3-3 run from late December into February. It allowed them to open a 15-point lead over second-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, and an 11-point lead over Florida in the Eastern Conference.
A fourth straight regular-season conference title seemed all but assured Feb. 15 after a 4-2 win over Philadelphia.
Who would have thought that in less than two months New Jersey would post an 8-14-2 mark, coach Robbie Ftorek would be fired and replaced by Larry Robinson, and the standings leads would be gone.
The Devils' loss Thursday, coupled with Philadelphia's 3-1 win over Atlanta, put the teams in a tie for first place in both the conference and division.
Philadelphia has two regular-season games left, New Jersey has one.
The Devils, the 1995 Stanley Cup champions, aren't even assured of having home-ice advantage for the opening round of the postseason. They could slip as low as fifth in the conference if they lose against Florida on Saturday, and the Panthers beat the New York Islanders on Sunday.
Both teams would finish with 101 points but Florida would own the tiebreaker edge because of more wins.
"We've put ourselves in this situation. No one else did it," Brodeur said. "We deserve whatever we deserve after those games."
The Devils have been a major disappointment in the playoffs as a top seed the past three years, with opening-round flops the last two and a second-round elimination in 1997.
Most of the players seem at a loss when asked about what's gone wrong this time, although the consensus is the team has lost its intensity during games, resulting in silly mistakes.
"I've been concerned for a month and a half," Devils captain Scott Stevens said. "We talk and talk but it seems like we all want to do it our own way. It's not going to happen that way."
The Devils have scored two or fewer goals in 15 of the 24 games during their skid, and losing defenseman Scott Niedermayer for the final nine regular-season games and the first of the playoffs because of a stick-swinging suspension didn't help.
"We can talk the talk, but unless we start doing things, and doing them right," center Bobby Holik said, "nothing is going to change."
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