The Devils waved bye-bye to last place and hello to some new found respect with an awesome February 2011 run of results. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
The first three months of the 2010-11 season was horrid. Simply bad for the New Jersey Devils. It was so bad, that a 6-5-1 record in January caused some to wonder whether it was a turn around. Even if it was just a hot streak, it was a nice change of pace from all the losing.
If the 12 games in January was a step in the right direction, the 13 games in February was a massive journey towards it. The Devils went an astounding 11-1-1 in February. I repeat: 11-1-1. They went 5-0-1 at the Rock; 6-1-0 elsewhere. The Devils rose from the very depths of the Eastern Conference to, well, just above those very depths at thirteenth place.
Nevertheless, that the Devils played 11 games in between regulation losses is impressive. That they won 11 games is impressive. It's impressive that the winning feeling has I'm over-using the word impressive but there's no other word to describe the month of February 2011 for this franchise. For those who aren't aware or want to re-live the glories, let's review the past month of games for the Devils.
February 2011 in Review
The month began right after the NHL All-Star Game, giving the Devils - except for Patrik Elias - a rest after a hot end to January. Whatever rust they had was shaken off by the second period against Ottawa on February 1. While they couldn't crack Robin Lehner for more than two goals, they pounded him with shots as a result of their dominance in possession. The Devils opened up the month with a 2-1 win and as the final record would indicate, things would get better from there on out. At least in terms of results.
The first of three back-to-back sets came up with a road game against Our Hated Rivals and a home game against Florida. These two games didn't go so swimmingly. While the Devils were able to chase Henrik Lundqvist out of the net, they shot themselves in the foot with penalties and were fortunate to escape MSG with a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers. The very next night, the Devils were a bit too loose in their own end, coughed up an equalizer, and lost to the Florida Panthers 4-3 in overtime. The performances weren't great, but 3 out of 4 points in a back-to-back is laudable all the same.
The dropped point to Florida would be the Devils' last time they would drop points until near the end of the month.
The winning streak kicked off in Montreal, which included a scare. Martin Brodeur had to leave after the first period with what turned out to be a right knee sprain. Johan Hedberg, who wasn't at all sharp against Florida, stepped in and played very well. What's more is that the guys in front of him were excellent, with Ilya Kovalchuk making magic happen every time he was on the ice. The Devils beat the Canadiens decisively 4-1 and the streak was on.
The streak had several different contributions, different levels of performances, but had one obvious commonality: wins. Following the win over Montreal, the Devils had a slow 40 minutes against Carolina, but warmed to the task in the third period. Mattias Tedenby was the hero of the day with the game winning goal in overtime in a 3-2 win over the Hurricanes. While Anton Volchenkov was suspended for three games after that game against the Canes for an elbow on Zach Boychuk (Kevin did a video review here), the Devils kept rolling on. Another back-to-back loomed with an away game in Toronto and a home game against the then-ridiculously-hot San Jose Sharks. The Devils came from behind to beat the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime on the strength of a brilliant goal by Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk would remain crucial as he scored the game winner in the third period to complete another comeback effort - beating the Sharks in regulation, 2-1.
While the wins mounted, the games remained close. A second home game against the Canes yielded the same final score: 3-2. However, the Devils were the superior team and only a late goal made the score closer than it really was. The Devils were downright dominant over the New York Rangers in their next game. The only reason why it wasn't a blowout was because Henrik Lundqvist was standing on his head. However, Kovalchuk scored (he does that often, doesn't he?) on a breakaway and the Rangers couldn't solve Hedberg. A 1-0 win for New Jersey over Our Hated Rivals in the final home game of the month. The very next night, the Devils kicked off a four game road trip in, where else, Carolina. This game was more decisive both on the ice and on the scoreboard. The Devils put up
four three goals in the first period on the Canes and never looked back in a 4-1 win.
At this point, the streak started to die out. They didn't play well in Dallas and scored on a fortunate deflection to win 1-0. Hedberg stood on his head in this one, which was enough to win. However, a team was able to control the game enough and put something past the Moose: Tampa Bay. The Lightning hosted the Devils and pretty much owned the game for the first 50 minutes or so. While the Devils got one back and while the Bolts hung back to protect a 1 goal lead, the Devils just didn't get the break they needed for an equalizer. The Devils lost 2-1, which ended the streak at eight games.
Fortunately, the month ended on a higher note. While they weren't so great in Florida against the Panthers, they were not totally run over and actually put the Panthers to the sword in the second period with 2 goals. Martin Brodeur started his first game since the beginning of the winning streak and he played like he was never gone, making all kinds of saves. The Devils beat the Panthers 2-1 to finish the month 11-1-1.
You'll notice that a lot of these games were close. Only two of the eleven wins were by one goal or more. Granted, they didn't include any empty net goals, so those two were really decisive. However, the Devils were able to get their other nine wins through strong possession at even strength (e.g. the 2-1 win over Ottawa, the 1-0 win over the Rangers); strong play from the top two lines of Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Nick Palmieri and Brian Rolston-Patrik Elias-Dainius Zubrus; a vastly improved defensive effort (Anssi Salmela looked like an actual defender); and excellent goaltending. With how the month ended in terms of the games, it seems like the Devils have cooled off. The top two lines haven't been as dominant. Though, the goaltending and work on defense remained tight as ever. Plus, the penalty killers still have a streak of their own.
The Devils had several achievements this month: Jacques Lemaire won his 600th game of his career; Patrik Elias picked up his 800th point - all with New Jersey - in the 4-1 win over Carolina; and Ilya Kovalchuk had a career high of 12 straight games with a point.
The Devils made two moves in this month in terms of personnel. The first was a minor trade. On February 9, the Devils sent Patrick Davis and Michael Swift to San Jose for Steven Zalewski and Jay Leach. Basically minor leaguers for minor leagues, though Leach was called up to New Jersey for a few days. He didn't play in any games, though.
The second was more substantial. Right at the NHL trade deadline, the Devils sent center Jason Arnott to the Washington Capitals for David Steckel and a second round pick in 2012. Here are my thoughts on the latter trade. It's interesting that was the only move they made. While the playoffs remain to be a real long shot for New Jersey, they didn't do anything that indicated that they were done. After all, they got an actual player who can be of some use and a pick back for an impending UFA. The deadline day also had Lou Lamoriello confirm, as reported here by Tom Gulitti, that defenseman Bryce Salvador will not return this season.
March will really show where the Devils will end up by the end of this season. If they fall back from Earth, they could still be drafting in the top five come June. If they can pull off a second straight month of loads of points, then the highly improbable will become probable. That's a tall task since even when they were winning, the Devils weren't always just outclassing their opposition. They benefited from breaks when in the first half of the season, they mostly went against the Devils. Either way, their performance in February will still remain impressive.
The Devil of the Month
With several players performing admirably in February, there's several choices available for some kind of recognition. Patrik Elias put up 1 goals and 8 assists, while driving the puck forward with Rolston and Zubrus. Both of them deserve some praise for putting up 5 and 6 goals, respectively. You could even make a case for Mark Fayne really blossomed as a defender, and put up 2 goals and 4 assists from a blueline that isn't really all that offensive. In my mind, there are two who have stood out the most. As usual, let's start with the honorable mention.
|Feb. 2011 - Ilya Kovalchuk||13||7||7
Ilya Kovalchuk had a point in every game in February except in the last one against Florida. Let me repeat that: Kovalchuk ended up on the score sheet in every single game this month except for the most recent game. Kovalchuk has never had a point streak this long. The streak itself is more impressive when you consider that many of his points were important. He did not pick up cheap empty net goals. He did hang back and pick up an assist just for touching it as his linemates did the work. No, Kovalchuk took initiative and went after defenders regardless of situation. Not only with the puck on a dangle, but also in breaking into the offensive zone and making an excellent pass for the goal. Several times this month, we got to see exactly how amazing Kovalchuk can be. For example, we saw it in the 4-1 win over Montreal, the 1-0 win over the Rangers, or the 1-0 win over the Maple Leafs.
I call it "beast mode" because he simply tears through the opposition when he's on his game. It's exactly why he got the big contract. It's exactly why he is still regarded as an impact player even when the shooting percentage was in a slump. It's exactly why he is an elite talent. And to think, there was one player who was more important.
The February 2011 ILWT Devil of the Month: Johan Hedberg
|Feb. 2011 - Johan Hedberg||10||9||588||7||1||1||14||1.43||247||233||94.3||2|
Hedberg's month did not start out well. He made two rather goofy gaffes in the 4-3 overtime loss to Florida, including not hugging the post which allowed Rostislav Olesz to win the game. When he stepped in for an injured Brodeur in relief in Montreal, he caught fire. I don't exactly when. I don't exactly know how. But Hedberg just was lights-out for the next eight starts. I can count one, maybe two, soft goals by Hedberg; but even when that happened, he more than made up for it. Just look at the numbers, a save percentage of 94.3% is simply ridiculous. Allowing only 14 goals - just 14! - in 10 appearances is excellent. More so when 4 of them came in one game. 10 allowed in 9 is utterly fantastic.
In the games where the Devils struggled early, Hedberg was the exact opposite: somehow getting his body in front of the rubber to keep the game close. In the games that went to overtime after the loss to Florida, he didn't lose his nerve or succumb to the pressure. In the games where the Devils looked good but just couldn't get more than a goal or two past the opposition's goaltender, Hedberg made the most of the support he had. The Devils do not win eight straight games without the Moose playing as well as he did. And even when the streak was broken, it wasn't a bad night for Hedberg - just an unfortunate occurrence.
Is this kind of month repeatable? No. Is this kind of performance sustainable? Not at all. Was there luck involved? You bet there was. All the same, the Moose got the job done, played out of his mind, and his accomplishments in February can't be taken back. Therefore, in my view, Johan Hedberg is the most deserving to be the February ILWT Devil of the Month.
#1 / Goalie / New Jersey Devils
May 05, 1973
GP: 10 7-1-1; 1.43 GAA; 94.3 Sv%; 2 SO
February 2011 In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month
With the Devils making only one move at the trade deadline and ending a wildly successful month, where do they go from here? What should we expect? I hope the Devils remain to be a competitive team. I think that's fair. To expect them to continue on from 11-1-1 is probably too much. We shall see starting on March 2.
Please feel free to give your take on how the Devils did in February 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.