The New Jersey Devils finished the month with a record of 6-5-1. They have taken 13 of the 24 possible points available in January. In most seasons, this would be considered to be an "off" month at best and a bad one at worst. The 2010-11 regular season has proven itself to be not like most seasons for New Jersey; it was the best month the New Jersey Devils have had so far this season.
It started off awfully with 4 straight losses. But then something happened on January 9, 2011. The Devils turned a 2-1 deficit going into the third period into a 6-3 win by the end of regulation. The Devils then went on to finish the month with a 5-1-1 record, playing far more competitive and watchable hockey than any stretch under John MacLean's time with the team. Coincidentally all after Jamie Langenbrunner was traded to Dallas for a conditional draft pick.
It's funny how a few weeks can change perception. Back in December, Timo Seppa of Hockey Prospectus asked me a few questions about the team that center around the notion "This team is worse than anyone would have thought." Earlier this week, Timo Seppa took a look at the Devils and he comes out with a more positive outlook. Please read it. While I'm not as optimistic as Timo, I can agree with the general point that the Devils aren't doormats anymore. The Devils are still in dead last in the standings, they have the worst offense in the league, but they aren't pushovers.
The next month will show whether or not it was a simple hot streak or a true turnaround. All the same, let's review January 2011 for what it was after the jump.
January 2011 in Review
The Devils ended 2010 with a win. They began 2011 with a very bad loss. In a 6-3 defeat at Carolina that saw Martin Brodeur pulled within the first period, watching the Devils was disheartening. While it was the second half of a back-to-back, they didn't show any sign of building on their win the night before. The only real positive was that they scored 3 goals in the loss as opposed to just one.
The response to the loss led to an announcement that Johan Hedberg would get the next start. While that may sound like news, it certainly was with much chatter about how Brodeur would no longer be the #1 goaltender. That starts would be split going forward. That this season showed Brodeur as washed up. I rolled my eyes at such notions then (as well as the one where going with Hedberg was the hot hand).
Hedberg would go on to start the next three games - all losses. In a poor showing against Minnesota, the Devils lost 2-1. The winning goal coming off a dump-in that hit a glass support and bounced into the net since Hedberg was expecting it to go around the corner. Needless to say, it The Devils would host Philadelphia in their next game, started off much better, but were ultimately overwhelmed by a single Flyers line in a 4-2 loss at the Rock. While that loss wasn't on Hedberg, he got the start in Philadelphia two days later, gave up two soft goals early to the Flyers, and was replaced with Brodeur.
The January 8 game against the Flyers ended in a 2-1 loss. This loss was different from most other losses by the Devils this season. They didn't sulk at the 2-0 deficit. They made a game of it. They hung with the first place team in the Eastern Conference on their own rink. They learned something from their recent 4-2 loss and it showed in how they played the Flyers. Losing to your second-most-hated rival isn't a good thing, but the marked improvement in effort has to be appreciated to a point.
That game was also notable for being the first without their captain Jamie Langenbrunner on the New Jersey roster. Langenbrunner was held out of the first Flyers game this month amid news that he would be traded. The deal officially went through on January 7: Langenbrunner to the Stars for the Stars' conditional third-round pick in 2011. If the Stars go past the first round of the playoffs or re-sign Langenbrunner before the draft, the pick becomes a second round pick in 2011. If the Stars re-sign him after the draft and don't get out of the first round, the Devils will get the Stars' 2012 second round draft pick in exchange for the Devils' third round pick in 2012. In the aftermath of the trade, I said what occurred in 2010 basically justified the trade. The Devils would go without a captain after shipping the last one out.
I can't say for certain whether the trade caused the Devils to play better or whether Jacques Lemaire's practices were finally getting through to some players or whether the stars just aligned for New Jersey for a change. Yet, on January 9, something great happened. The Devils made a comeback to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-3, scoring 5 goals in the third period. A comeback? Goals? From the Devils? Surely, a miracle, right? It felt great but I feared it would be an outlier. A fluke. An anomaly given how the team has played after wins, most recently their New Year's Day flop at Carolina.
The Devils showed it wasn't an anomaly. The Devils showed they can build on a win by beating on the Lightning four days later in their building. With four goals scored in the first period, of all things, on their way to a 5-2 victory over Tampa Bay. The win was their first win on the road since November 3 and their first consecutive win in regulation all season. It wouldn't be a streak just yet as the Florida Panthers weathered a Devils storm in the third period, only allowing an equalizer, but prevailing in what would be a 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey. Even with the overtime loss, the Devils looked far better then they have been in a long time.
It would continue to not be a fluke. On the observed date for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthdate, the Devils made sure the time between road wins would not last over a month. They went into Long Island, Mattias Tedenby suited up for the Devils, and played like a monster in a 5-2 win over the Islanders - the first win over them all season. The Devils hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday - without Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Despite their dirty play, they couldn't break a 1-2-2 trap, and Brodeur and the Devils shut them out completely 2-0. The win over Pittsburgh was the first of the season.
All this time from coming in relief on January 8, Brodeur was in net for New Jersey (so much for split starts and being washed up). Lemaire decided on starting Hedberg against the Flyers two days later for a matinee game in Philadelphia. A fully healthy and in-form Flyers team, of all teams. To say Hedberg got redemption would be an understatement. He was astonishing in net, stopping everything except for one re-directed puck. Hedberg was the star in a 3-1 win over the Flyers that ensured the first authentic winning streak of the season for New Jersey.
The winning continued as the Devils won both games in a back-to-back set all season in a 5-2 win over Florida. The Devils (except Martin Brodeur) didn't play the greatest of games, but the power play of all things showed up that day (one of the few times all month) to ensure the win. The streak did end in their final game of the month in Detroit. The Red Wings exercised their superiority in puck possession (among other facets of the game) as time went on, as the Devils lost 3-1. Even in the loss, the Devils showed that a quick goal wouldn't immediately sink them and that they would play a top team close.
At the end of January, the Devils still have no actual captain. They still boast the worst offense in the league regardless of improved shooting percentages for the team and most veteran forwards. The power play only converted 5 out of 34 opportunities. Despite the streak, the Devils are still sitting in 30th place out of 30 teams, and 22 points behind eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
However, the 5-1-1 the Devils went on to finish the month gives Devils fans hope that this team may have turned it around and can be called a competitive team. They beat not-in-the-playoff teams, they beat division leaders, and they did it both at home and on the road. There's reason to believe they actually improved. The coming month will show whether it's for real or not.
That's how a 6-5-1 month can be seen as a success.
The Devil of the Month
There are actually several choices for honorable mention for the January In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month. Defenseman Henrik Tallinder went 12 games going up against tough competition and hasn't been a total mess, completely unlike what he was back in October. Martin Brodeur certainly showed that he wasn't washed up by appearing in 9 games, starting in 8, going 5-1-1 with a 2.28 goals against average, earning 1 shutout, and (most importantly) a save percentage of 91.9%. Ilya Kovalchuk had a fine month with 5 goals, 4 assists, improved defensive play, and playing a ton of minutes without being a real burden (whether it was warranted is up to you). However, I'm going to have to give it to a player I totally did not expect to laud given his first game this month.
|Jan. 2011 - Brian Rolston||11||4||7||11||6||6||1||2||2||+4||24||16.7|
Back after the 2-1 loss on Minnesota on January 4, I was angry with Brian Rolston. I wasn't happy with how he did against Minnesota. I wasn't happy with how he played on the ice. I wanted him in Albany just for performance reasons. I have to apologize to Mr. Rolston. I'm sorry for being so harsh. I'm sorry for writing you off. In this month, you proven me that, yes, you do belong in the NHL and, yes, you do care about what you do on the ice. You started skating harder, being more of a factor on the ice in general, since that night and you were finally rewarded with your efforts with 2 assists against the Lightning on January 9.
Symbolic of the team's 5-1-1 run, Rolston would go on to get at least one point in every game except for one (January 15 at Florida, the 3-2 OT loss). What makes his scoring more impressive is that the majority of these points came at even strength. He wasn't the beneficiary of a hot power play. Rolston was productive in the run of play, creating plenty of them while showcasing his powerful slapshot on three of the four goals he scored this month. On top of all of that, he managed to go through January positive in Corsi, which is a nice feat since the Devils had a couple games where the other team was desperate to score against New Jersey late.
I don't know whether Lemaire got through to Rolston, whether Rolston got it together, whether he's in a good situation, or whether he just got hot. He's not going to justify his albatross of a salary, but I'll gladly take how he played this month. Though, one player did more than Rolston and a little more often to help his team:
The January 2011 ILWT Devil of the Month: Patrik Elias
|Jan. 2011 - Patrik Elias||12||6||7||13||8||4||2||1||2||+16||125||18.2|
Once again, he finishes with a positive Corsi in the month. Meaning when Elias was on the ice at even strength, the puck was usually going in the right direction. In fact, he's 24th in the league in relative Corsi rate at 5-on-5 among all forwards who have played at least 20 games according to Behind the Net. Elias often played with Rolston and Dainius Zubrus this month, but his higher Corsi rate is evidence that he's the real driver of that line.
Once again, he led the Devils in scoring in January; and remains the overall team leader with 37 points. The most impressive part about this month was how often he earned points. In only three games this month was he held without a point: the 2-1 loss to Minnesota on January 4; the 2-1 loss to Philadelphia on January 8; and the 3-2 OT loss to Florida on January 15. In all other 9 games, Elias put up these 13 points. He's currently riding a 5 game point streak. Surely, it will end at some point, but there's no real reason to believe he'll suddenly stop being productive given his excellent skills on offense (or stop being useful given his PK work).
On top of being a productive player both in possession and in points, Elias was named to be the Devils representative at the 2011 All Star Game on January 30. While tempting to think no Devil really deserved it this season, Elias is the only deserving player on this roster. Yes, Patrik Elias, the December ILWT Devil of the Month, is the January ILWT Devil of the Month. There really isn't anyone who deserves it more.
#26 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 13, 1976
GP: 12; G: 6; A: 7; Pts: 13
January 2011 In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month.
In my opinion, the goal for the rest of the season isn't to make some miracle run for the playoffs. It's to improve the team and have them play competitive hockey the rest of the way. The goal for the next month is to continue what was done in January. The Devils will return to action on February 1 against the Ottawa Senators. Starting the month without a 4-game losing streak would be a good start. Let's hope the relatively good times can keep rolling.
Please feel free to give your take on how the Devils did in January as well as who I selected for the Devil of the Month in the comments. Particularly the honorable mention, you can make a case for a couple Devils as noted in the post. Thank you for reading.