The New Jersey Devils: March 2010 in Review

In my review of the New Jersey Devils' February, I wrote the following:

Overall, the Devils have won only 8 games since January 8 and they haven't won two consecutive games since January 12.  Fans like myself are running out of reasons to hope things will be quickly different for New Jersey. The Devils, like the rest of the NHL, are on a two week break and will place their next game in March.  Will it help?  Hopefully. 

If not, the fans are left justifiably asking about the team's focus and heart that was ever-present in the 2009 part of this season.  That directly ties into the team's leadership and coaches.  Will there be a change there? Will there be another trade, possibly for a defender? Will the team being finally healthy be enough to get it sorted out?  At this point, I think most Devils fans just want some wins more than anything else - as this month was inarguably bad for New Jersey.

We're now at the end of March and unfortunately we only have some of the answers to these questions. 

The Devils indeed make one more trade, sending a fifth round pick to Toronto in exchange for Martin Skoula. So far, Skoula has played fairly well.  I'll admit he's been more solid than I expected, playing next to Paul Martin of all defensemen.  Indeed, Martin finally returned to play this month to make it the first time all season that the Devils have been fully healthy among regulars.

Did the Olympic Break help? For some players it did, but the New Jersey Devils finished March with only a 7-5-3 record. Better than February and the performances were more consistent - well, consistently positive - than January.  But that's a very mixed record.  The Devils didn't even win half of their games and only picked up 17 out of a possible 30 points.  Granted, they still clinched the playoffs in this month and they have a shot at catching Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division lead.  Regardless, one can break down March in a number of ways to find something to feel good about and something that causes serious concern.

The Devils have done well at home in March with a 5-1-2 record; but are still struggling on the road with a 2-4-1 record.   The Devils won the first game in all three of their back-to-back sets; but lost the second game in those three sets as well.  The Devils scored 5 goals or more in three games; but they got shutout in three games.   Against teams currently in the playoffs, the Devils went 5-1-1.  Against teams not in the playoffs, they went 2-4-2. Did the Devils finally win two games in a row? Yes, but never three.  On special teams, the Devils were wildly successful in killing penalties in March; killing 36 out of 40 (90%).  However, the power play went into a 6 game scoreless streak and only two really great games kept the monthly power play success rate at 17% (8 out of 46).

To answer the larger question of whether the Devils have turned themselves around for the better after a horrid February, honestly, I do not know.  We've seen the Devils sweep Pittsburgh only to turn around and look poor in losses to the Islanders and the Maple Leafs.  We've seen Calgary and Edmonton outplay the Devils after New Jersey held on to win in San Jose.  Before you can say that the Devils only get up for better teams, they end the month with bad performances in losses to Philadelphia and Boston - teams the Devils may very well be facing in the postseason.

There's only 6 games remaining and the Devils have clinched the playoffs back on March 27.  Where will they be?  Will they rise up and play hard in all six of those games? Or will they struggle and concern fans with their confusing ways? Either way, the goal now is simple:  get momentum for the playoffs.  Because March, especially how it ended, definitely didn't bring it with it's just-above-average record.

March in Review

I feel like the best way to overview this month is break it down by three sections:

The Last West Coast Road Trip

The New Jersey Devils returned to NHL action in San Jose, taking on the then-first-place-in-the West San Jose Sharks.  Given that most of the players had off for two weeks and a number of key players on both teams starred at the Olympics, who knew how the first game would turn out.  For the Devils, it went exceedingly well at first. They scored the first 4 goals of the game, but struggles returned when the Sharks struck for three quick goals in the third.  However, in a stark contrast from January and February, the Devils held on to get a road win over the Sharks. 

Yet, the team went downhill in a 5-3 loss to Calgary that saw 5 straight goals scored by Calgary; and then rock bottom against the NHL-last-place Edmonton Oilers in a game where I think Martin Brodeur was the only Devil to show up as the Devils got shutout by the Oilers 2-0.  Yes. The Oilers. 2-0. And entirely deserved given how lackluster the team looked.  It was like the slump just took a vacation in California.

The Return Home and the Return to Winning 

While we discussed the slump itself, the team looked within themselves for answers.  Whatever was said at the players-only meeting on Tuesday, March 9, must have worked because the first home game was a big homecoming.  Not just for Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, who got big ovations from the home crowd.  It was big because they beat on the New York Rangers in an impressive fashion, 6-3.  It was a win, it was over a rival, it was the return of Paul Martin, and it even featured the offense scoring a bucket load of goals.  The game was an oasis in the desert of "Meh-and-ugh" that the Devils were trekking through in 2010.

Then the Devils actually built on that win with a decisive 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first win over the Penguins this month and since early January. Fantastic! But unfortunately, it would not last. The team took a step back the next night in Long Island where a poor second period and an awful shorthanded goal against sank the Devils 4-2.   Yet, the loss didn't lead to further problems.  They bounced back in their next game, showing that they wouldn't fold. The Devils gave some proof that the slump may be over with a tighter-looking-than-it-was 3-2 win over Boston. Once again, the Devils built on that with an impressive 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of a full house at the Rock. In my opinion, the best win of the month.  6 wins out of 6 games over Pittsburgh, shutting Sidney Crosby down, 4 straight wins at home, and Devils fans had reason to be real happy.

Then a trip to face the Toronto Maple Leafs brought fans down to earth as the Devils didn't come out strong, Yann Danis playing over his head to keep the game close, and regretting Paul Martin missing an empty net late in regulation as the Leafs won the game in a shootout.  Still, 4-1-1 in the last six was nothing to sneeze at.  In retrospect, it led to a mixed finish for the Devils in March.

Back Down to Inconsistency

Since that Leafs game, the rest of the month just went in different directions. The Devils managed to have an unofficial throwback night to 1998 where they'd do everything right on the ice but finish their chances, leading to a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues.   Concerns were briefly allayed when the power play scored 3 goals and the Devils put a total of 6 goals on Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets to win 6-3.  OK, the Devils got a win over a team they should have beaten and did so in clear-cut fashion.  Not bad, right? 

Unfortunately, unlike the first game over the Rangers or the first game over the Bruins, the Devils did not earn a second straight win over the Rangers.  They didn't do anything particularly bad on the ice; but a late goal forced extra time and the Rangers won in the shootout, 4-3.  It's never good to lose to a rival, but they didn't look too bad in doing so. 

However, the final three games of the season led to slow starts by the Devils with different results later on.  Against the Montreal Canadiens, Martin Brodeur held strong early and the Devils fought back and came out with their first road win since March 2 against San Jose. The Devils won that night 3-2 and clinched a playoff spot.  The very next night, the Devils fell flat on their face and the Philadelphia Flyers skated all over them.  The Devils lost 5-1 and the only bright spot was that they didn't get shutout.  On the final game of the month, the Devils played even worse than in the Philadelphia game in many ways. Martin Brodeur was the only Devil to show up and he alone forced the game to go to overtime.  Alas, a bad break found Boston winning with less than 20 seconds left in overtime to win 1-0 and end New Jersey's March on a very sour note.

While the Devils only lost three games via giving up a goal in the final minute of the game, it's still very disappointing. While we can discuss how the Devils and the opposition did from game to game, getting shut out three times is disappointing.  However, one can't look at only the bad games. The Devils played some very good games this month, proving that this team is able to do very well and beat anyone in the league.   The trouble is that they have yet to figure out how to perform consistently well.  Unfortunately, they're running out of time to do it.

At least March was better than January and February.  I wish I knew what it will lead to with April coming up.

Devil of the Month

Overall, a number of Devils had a pretty good March.  Inconsistent production, perhaps, but good all together. I don't think anyone honestly questions how well Martin Brodeur is, especially not after the last game with Boston where he made sure the Devils got something out of that game.  Four Devil forwards finished with at least 10 points in the 15 games in March: Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Patrik Elias.  Not bad months at all for each of them. Especially while considering Jacques Lemaire has continued to  mix and match forwards in order to find the right mix.  Unfortunately, he was still experimenting well into March; hopefully, he'll settle on roles in April.   At least the defense is set with Paul Martin having had a mostly successful return after an incredibly long time on injured reserve; and Martin Skoula fitting in very well since the trade.

Today, the New Jersey Devils held their players awards in a luncheon.  The team MVP was Zach Parise, Andy Greene got the Unsung Hero award for his play in place of Martin, and Mike Mottau was named as the Player's Player.   He's also the In Lou We Trust Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month of March 2010.

Devil of the Month Honorable Mention:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Mike Mottau 15 1 5 6 1 6 0 0 0 19:19 14 7.1

I'm sure some of you are flabbergasted. But March has truly featured the resurgence of Mike Mottau.  I detailed how well he has played since the beginning of the month up until March 24.   Since that post, Mottau has faced quite a bit of work in the following four games. When Mottau was out on the ice on even strength situations, the Devils faced 12, 11, 8, and 15 shots respectively.  Yet only in that third game - the 5-1 loss to Philadelphia - did the Mottau and the Devils get lit up for three goals when he was out there.  Truly, it was his only bad game this month; which is a far improvement over January and February where he would consistently make terrible errors that would lead to goals against.   The Devils' last game of the month - against Boston - saw Mottau being out there for 15 shots against on even strength.  But Mottau did very well in ensuring those shots were easily stopped and preventing Boston to getting to rebounds or have a free lane to Brodeur.  That's why Lemaire played him 26:27, because Mottau has cut down on his mistakes, contributes to a very good penalty killing unit. He has earned such responsibility.  Even his offense was hitting highs, as he picked up 6 of his 16 points this season in March.

Of all of the Devils, I think Mottau benefited the most from the Olympic break as he has been playing great on defense.  For this improvement, he deserved honorable mention for Devil of the Month.  I felt this Devil was far more worthy of honors for March.

The In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for March 2010, Ilya Kovalchuk


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Ilya Kovalchuk 15 7 8 15 5 2 2 0 0 21:24 55 12.7

Back on March 20, I wrote a rather in-depth piece on Kovalchuk's time in New Jersey. I went over how he was performing as well as the various personal and tactical issues surrounding Kovalchuk due to the trade.   He was doing pretty good, but not great, as a Devil.  Since that piece, Kovalchuk has been great.  His production in March shot up as he settled in with the team, his shooting percentage rose to a more expected value of 12.7%, and his skills were paramount on a team that never really had a player quite like him.  Looking back on March, he has the most points among all Devils players in March, one of the few top forwards to finish as a plus player, and has done so while playing a lot of minutes. 

It's not that Kovalchuk hasn't made mistakes, and from time to time, he may be trying to do to much on the ice. Yet, in every game save for the last one against Boston, Kovalchuk commanded the attention of every one in the game from the opposition to the fans.  Only in the last game against Boston was Kovalchuk a non-factor, but that was a game where the entire offense was a non-factor for much of the game.  Even in the 5-1 loss to Philadelphia, who got the lone goal for New Jersey? Kovalchuk.  In the Calgary and Islander games there Kovalchuk got beaten off the point that led to a shorthanded goal in each of those games, do recall that Kovalchuk managed to score there too.  I bring up those games as evidence that his desire to succeed in New Jersey is true. 

There's increasing evidence of him fitting in better on the team beyond just production.  For example, the 3-1 win over Pittsburgh, who did I see out there in the last minute as Pittsburgh is throwing everything forward? Kovalchuk who was out there to defend - to defend, I kid you not - and succeeding.    Or in the 3-2 win over Montreal, where Kovalchuk charged ahead to take the puck back, won it back from the defense in the neutral zone, had the empty net to ice the game but just dished it off for Brian Rolston so he can get his 700th point.  A selfless act like that just showed how Kovalchuk is caring about his teammates - another sign of fitting in.  And as he fits in, the points are going to continue.   As it is, he's already got 20 points in 21 games.

These performances are what you want from a guy like Kovalchuk. His March turned out to be great in retrospect. Again, he didn't score in every game, but he amassed the most points and has played some positive role in each of them except for the last one against Boston.  That is why I believe he is the Devil of the Month.


Ilya Kovalchuk

#17 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils

6-1

230

Apr 15, 1983

March 2010 Devil of the Month

GP: 15, G: 7, A: 8, +5, 2 PIM, 55 SOG

Please leave your thoughts about how March 2010 went for the New Jersey Devils, the Devil of the Month, and anything related to that in the comments.

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