NEWARK, N.J. - For the past 16-plus seasons, playing hockey has been fun for New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
It was a sport he loved to play. He earned a bundle of money doing it, and the Devils always were a threat to win it all.
Talk hockey with Brodeur these days, however, and that ever-present smile isn't always there.
For the first time in his long career, the three-time Stanley Cup-champion Devils are no longer competitive and their streak of making the playoffs for 13 consecutive years is in serious jeopardy. They are 17 points out of a playoff berth.
This could be the year of the Devils' demise, and it's only 29 games into season.
How bad is it?
The Devils' 18 total points after 29 games is the second worst in the NHL. Only the nearby New York Islanders have fewer points (15) and they have played two less games heading into Monday night's action.
New Jersey also is mired in one of its worst slumps in years, having lost five straight games. The streak is the longest since it lost six in a row (0-5-1) late in 2008-09. All five losses have come in regulation, marking the first time that has happened since November 2000, when it lost six in a row.
"It's tiring playing like that," Brodeur said. "Not having fun is not fun. We're trying hard. We're playing hard to change things but it seems not to be working. Hopefully, we'll get through this. I know it is hard.
"Right now, we can't even look at the playoffs. I think this is something, hopefully it (the playoffs) will be there later on, but right now we have to concentrate on the next game and play day by day, That's it."
The unexpected slump has put rookie coach John MacLean's job in jeopardy and left president and general manager Lou Lamoriello searching for answers in a season that no one anticipated.
"I don't think anyone is feeling good about where we stand, but you can't do anything about what's transpired," Lamoriello said Monday. "Right now, we have to focus in on Wednesday night's game and that's what we have to get ready for."
Lamoriello refused to discuss MacLean's future.
"Right now, this is our hockey team, this is our coaching staff, this is where we're at," he said. "I'm not going to get into anymore questions about it."
Despite another first-round playoff disappointment last season, the expectations for the Devils were high. Lamoriello re-signed high-scoring forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract after the league voided the original 17-year pact for circumventing the salary cap.
Defencemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder were signed as free agents after Paul Martin decided to sign with Pittsburgh. And Brodeur was coming off a year in which he led the league in goals against average for the fifth time.
Things just haven't worked out and it starts with Kovalchuk, who averaged more than 42 goals in his first eight seasons. He has five in a season where New Jersey has scored a league-low 53 times.
"Last year, we didn't have that problem," said Kovalchuk, who seemingly has been booed with every on-ice mistake at the Prudential Center. "This year, I don't know. We have so many chances, crossbars, posts, miss the net, broken sticks. It's just one of those starts where nothing goes our way. We have to stick with it."
Kovalchuk isn't the only problem. Zach Parise, who scored 38 goals last season, will be sidelined until February because of knee surgery, and Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac have been limited to three goals apiece.
This also has been an uncharacteristic season for the defence, which has surrendered 88 goals. A big problem for the back line has been moving the puck out of its own zone.
"You can't go at it on your own to turn things around," MacLean said. "It's going to have to be turned around together. Everybody together has to turn it around."
It starts with MacLean, a Devil through and through, who was an assistant coach here and is still the second all-time leading scorer with 701 points in 934 games. He is in a tough spot because of the injuries, and let's face it, the Atlantic Division—with the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers all playing well—is not going to give the Devils many breaks.
If the Devils are going to change things, they have to stop the mistakes. In losing to Detroit 4-1 on Saturday, they made two mistakes in the opening 1:42 and fell behind 2-0.
"It seems like we'll get an early break against us, and they'll score and it's kind of like: 'Here we go again,'" veteran forward Brian Rolston said. "We have to be mentally tough in those situations, where we know we can come back. Let's face it, we haven't been successful this year and we have to get back to it."
Most of the players have stopped looking at the standings. It can be depressing, and it also can cause them to lose focus on the things at hand.
For the Devils, that's Phoenix on Wednesday night.
"We can't doubt ourselves," said Jason Arnott, who leads the team with nine goals. "We know it's not in our favour right now. We can't worry about that. We have to try to get as many points as we can every game from now until the end of the year, or else it is going to be an early year."
In the midst of all the concern, the Devils, at least, had a few hours to relax on Sunday at their annual Christmas party. Families skated together, and children visited with Santa Claus.
Brodeur laughed when asked if he asked Santa for a few wins. But his children spoke with St. Nick.
"I didn't tell them what to wish for," Brodeur said with a smile that reminded many of years past, "but they have to live with their dad. So, they know what to wish for."
NOTES: Langenbrunner was excused from Monday's practice for personal reasons. He is expected back Tuesday. ... Defenceman Anssi Salmela, who has been sidelined all season while recovering from surgery on his right knee, will be activated and probably will be paired with Volchenkov for Wednesday's game, MacLean said.