The New Jersey Devils didn't play the most excellent set of 15 hockey games, but the success cannot be ignored. The Devils went 11-4, shut out the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins twice, and are currently first in the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference, and lead the league in wins (but only 2 points behind San Jose). The month began and ended with a loss, but every loss was followed up with a win and the Devils continued stay at the top of the East.
In terms of health, well, the Devils aren't there just yet. Paul Martin suffered a setback in his recovery from a fractured arm; Dainius Zubrus has not begun skating yet; while David Clarkson came back from a fractured right fibula, he re-injured it in the 4-0 win against Pittsburgh on December 30; and Bryce Salvador has been added to the list of regular Devils with injuries - he suffered "lower body injury" at the end of the month. In a way, the team's record this month further speaks to the effectiveness of the team's current coaching, which I praised back on Christmas; as well as the depth available on the roster.
While the performances from game to game aren't perfect, like all sports, you just need to be better than the opposition and the Devils have clearly accomplished that so far this season. At 28-10-1, one really can't complain too loudly. The team scores an average of 2.77 per game (11th in NHL), shoots 29.8 shots on net per game (tied for 15th), gives up an average of 2.18 goals per game (2nd), allows 27.7 shots per game (tied for 3rd), converts on the power play at a rate of 20.8% (tied for 9th), and successfully kills penalties 82.6% of the time (12th). These are all very good team statistics and the month of December has proven that this is a very good New Jersey Devils team.
The Month in Review
The month started off poorly. The Devils would start things off with a disappointing effort against the Vancouver Canucks at the Rock. They lost 5-2, Roberto Luongo looked great, and the Devils faded as time went on. Yet, the Devils would begin the theme of December by rebounding with a win - usually an "ugly" win. It took a late tip-in by Jamie Langenbrunner on an Andy Greene shot to put the Devils up over the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-2. Of course, that prevented Devils from handing Tampa Bay points after they equalized in the third period. This was followed by a shootout win over the Detroit Red Wings; a game where the Devils blew a two goal lead and were fortunate to get something out of the game. The Devils extended their winning streak at the time to four with some better efforts: a complete, 60 minute solid effort in Buffalo that saw Martin Brodeur earn his 103rd shutout against the Sabres. Unfortunately, for the fourth one the best I can say is that they didn't give up the lead to Carolina (though they came close) at the Rock en route to a 4-2 win.
Yet, another loss was to occur and also in keeping theme for this month, it wasn't a good loss. The Devils were outworked by the Florida Panthers on home ice. When you don't give a 60 minute effort and the opposition does, you'll lose - and that's exactly what happened to the Devils as they lost 4-2 to Florida. The rebound from this loss was improved, however. The Devils looked more than fine against a hated rival and decisively defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-1. The game is of special note as Patrik Elias scored his 300th and 301st career goals with the Devils. This was followed by the Devils defeating the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in a game where no one seemingly wanted to win; and the Devils getting an acceptable 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators in Martin Brodeur's 1,030th career game (an all time record). Martin Brodeur got pulled for the first time this season against the Atlanta Thrashers wherein 3 goals were given up on 6 shots (not that Colin White and Mike Mottau helped him out). So Yann Danis stepped in relief and got the W when the Devils' offense led the effort and completed a big, 5-4 comeback win over the Thrashers.
Then, it finally happened. History was finally broken. Bigger than the all time minutes and games played record, Martin Brodeur earned his 104th career shutout against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-0 win at the Igloo. It was an intense game, one that will be forever remembered in the hearts of Devils fans. A fantastic present prior to Christmas, and the loudest example of where Martin Brodeur plays much better after a bad night in the net.
Alas, this five game winning streak would not continue. The next game was a loss and it was a pretty decisive one, where the Washington Capitals just overwhelmed the Devils on Boxing Day by a score of 4-1. Of course, the Devils bounced back in their next game against the Thrashers. Zach Parise, after going the whole month without a goal, finally gets two that led the Devils to a 3-2 win in a chippy, somewhat sloppy game over Atlanta. The Rock was not treated to Brodeur's 104th shutout, but they were incredibly appreciative of the follow-up, 105th career shutout in New Jersey's final home game of 2009. This also came against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Like the last one at the Igloo, it was an intense affair where Martin Brodeur was the star with a much tighter scoreline: 2-0, which includes the last minute empty net goal. Brodeur was the hero again.
2009 didn't end with a whimper for the Devils, but with a groan. The Devils traveled to Chicago and got outworked and dismantled by the Blackhawks 5-1. A sobering reminder that as good as the Devils have been, they aren't invincible and poor efforts, bad decisions, and abysmal execution will lead to losses. Even then, the Devils finish the month at the top of the Eastern Conference and a 28-10-1 record. The results have been great despite the sour beginning and end to the month. Should current trends to continue, expect January to start off really well for the first few games.
Throughout the month, some players stepped while others faded. Fortunately, as one gets quiet, the others step up. While Zach Parise wasn't scoring goals, he did contribute 10 assists (and 63 shots on goal) in the month to keep pace with top scorers in the league and to help the team get results. Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston each did well in the middle of the month and ultimately contributed 11 (5 goals, 6 assists) and 9 points (5 goals, 4 assists), respectively. Alas, their production has faded in recent games. Nicklas Bergfors continued his very pleasant rookie season with 7 goals and 3 assists, which makes his total 26 points - putting him just behind John Tavares (rookie leader in scoring with 28 points) and Matt Duchene (27 points). And captain Jamie Langenbrunner continues his excellent season with 5 goals and 5 assists.
Beyond the scorers, Johnny Oduya has looked very good upon his return from injury and has usually played at least 20 minutes of solid defensive work. He was only truly burned recently, but then the whole team was burned by Chicago, in my opinion. Vladimir Zharkov continues to make his case for the NHL, hustling as hard as he can regardless if he's filling in on the second line or on the fourth line (where he currently is). As the Devils get healthier, he'll likely get sent down but his efforts aren't going without notice. Dean McAmmond had a bloom in production with 3 goals and 4 assists mid-way through the month and continues to be an excellent in-season signing.
The Olympics come ever so closer and multiple Devils have been honored to represent their country in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Johnny Oduya was named to Sweden; Martin Brodeur will be in net for Canada; Patrik Elias has been named captain of the Czech Republic; and Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Paul Martin were all selected for the United States today.
Yet, being Devil of the Month, in my opinion, is about consistent excellence and only two players come to mind that have played very well in nearly every single game in a busy, 15-game December.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention:
|Dec. 2009 - Andy Greene||15||2||9||11||2||2||1||0||1||25:00||15||13.3|
What's this? Andy Greene - again? But I ask, why not? The only generally-consistent scorers throughout the month were Parise, who only scored two goals this month and did that in one game, and Greene. A Devils defenseman contributing over 10 points in a month, no less! His production so far this season has been impressive; and he's clearly exceeded my original expectations prior to this season by continuing his excellent play this month. When news came out that Paul Martin suffered a setback with his injury, I was disappointed, but I wasn't worried because Greene will continue leading the blueline to continued excellence for the most part. I was really tempted to give Devil of the Month to him just for all of that alone.
He also represents a bit of a smell test for how the Devils do. If he was a minus in December, which happened four times, the Devils went 1-3 with the one win being the shootout win over Detroit. Outside of that, he's continued his excellent work on the team's first pairing with his now-injured partner Bryce Salvador and, more recently, Johnny Oduya. Only one other player represents that well and that someone is a certain legend you and I both know quite well. Martin Brodeur, you are the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for December 2009.
|Dec. 2009 - Martin Brodeur||15||863||10||4
Yes, he was pulled from a game this past month. Yes, his goals against average and save percentage was better last month. But that's not the point. When the Devils haven't played well, many goals are scored against: the losses combined for 18 of those 34 goals against. Just like when Andy Greene doesn't have a good night, it's not going to end well for New Jersey when Martin Brodeur concedes several goals.
Yet, when the Devils needed a big stop or had a small one goal lead to protect - Brodeur rose to the occasion. Of those 10 wins, four finished with a one goal lead and three others only finished with a two goal lead thanks to an empty net goal. Martin Brodeur is an important reason why the Devils were able to get results night after night despite inconsistent, sub-60-minutes-of-effort play from game to game.
Most of all, and this is what set him apart from Andy Greene getting this prize-less award, are the shutouts. Martin Brodeur got three shutouts, two of them on the road, and against top competition in the Eastern Conference: the Northeast Division leading Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins - twice. For Brodeur personally, these shutouts were huge because they were his 103rd, 104th, and 105th shutouts of his career. The one that broke the record matched the Devils' M.O. after a loss; he bounced back with a huge game. Mind you, the Devils didn't lose against Atlanta, but getting pulled isn't good and he dazzled the next night against the Igloo. And he wasn't done there, he extended it against that same Penguins team that in a much tighter game, a 1-0 Devils lead until a last minute, game-icing empty net goal from Jamie Langenbrunner.
Shutout and minutes records aside, the performances were big when Brodeur needed to be big and his form kept the Devils winning and in front in the two-horse race that is the Atlantic Division throughout December. For that, I feel he is deserving of the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month distinction for December 2009.
#30 / Goalie / New Jersey Devils
May 06, 1972
December 2009 Devil of the Month
GP: 15 10-4-0, 2.36 GAA, .913 Sv%, 3 SO, All Time NHL Leader in Shutouts.
Feel free to agree and/or disagree in the comments about my thoughts as well as discuss how this month went for the Devils.