Ilya Kovalchuk congratulated Zach Parise for scoring the team's lone empty net goal this month. If only he knew he would have won one more accolade...then he would have known. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
While it's not exactly halfway through the season, with 37 games played it's becoming clear that the New Jersey Devils are a good team, but not a great team. As with a good team, they can be competitive with any team in the league. They can catch some fire and go on a streak or two. Yet, they have serious flaws that prevent them from being great. These are flaws that make games more difficult to succeed regardless of whether they got the result or not.
The New Jersey Devils demonstrated this concept throughout December 2011. The monthly record was pretty good at 9-5. Ending the calendar year of 2011 in sixth in the Eastern Conference is pretty good. Being atop the bubble of teams placed sixth through eleventh is pretty good. Having 7 different players with at least 10 goals is pretty good. The highest point would have to be their four-win streak in the middle of the month, as they won two straight back-to-back sets. Their lowest would have to be how they started the month: two straight road losses followed by two post-regulation wins and a home loss. The winning streak helped salvage the month, which looked like a repeat of November. Yet, even in that winning streak, it wasn't easy.
Third period performances continued to be an issue for this team, as they were out-scored 12-17 and gave up at least one goal in each third period except for three games within this month. The Devils power play only converted 8 out of 51 opportunities; while they also allowed 5 shorthanded goals. The fourth line remains terrible, like most of them in the NHL. These issues will continue to hold the Devils back unless they show improvement in that regard soon.
By the same token, the Devils got their offense going with their top two lines. The Devils only went beyond regulation in four out of the fourteen games played in December and won each of them: three in the shootout and one in overtime. The Devils penalty killers remain strong with only 6 power play goals allowed in 47 shorthanded situations and 4 shorthanded goals scored. The Devils remain a positive possession team with some good trends heading upwards such as team save percentage hitting 90% at evens.
The New Jersey Devils in December 2011 proved to me that they're solid. They're not going to put the NHL on notice and become a powerhouse in 2012 short of some massive gains or a ridiculous hot streak. Given that the goal of this season is to make the playoffs, they don't have to be a powerhouse; they just need to keep up the good work they've done. Basically: more of this would be just fine with me - along with some improvement in third periods and the power play (I hope that goes without saying)
For further details on how this month went for the Devils as well as my selection for Devil of the Month, please continue on after the jump.
The Games of December 2011
The month of December 2011 didn't start off well for the Devils. They went into Minnesota after a nasty loss to Colorado and had a messy start. Three quick goals by the Wild within the first 8:17 of the game saw Martin Brodeur pulled and the Devils dazed. And that was a game where the Devils scored first. While the Devils would answer one of those Wild goals, they couldn't crack a then-hot Niklas Backstrom any more than that. A third period goal off a breakaway sealed the 4-2 loss for New Jersey. The very next night, the Devils visited Winnipeg in the hopes of snapping a then three game losing streak. That didn't happen. The Devils put in a good effort and actually led at some point in the second period. Then a shorthanded goal tied it up and the Jets converted in a 4-on-4 situation to go up. An empty net goal later and the Devils lost their fourth straight game 4-2 to Winnipeg.
The road trip at least had a happy ending for the Devils. In Toronto, the Devils managed to accomplish the rare feat of having a successful power play with two power play goals to open the first period. In fact, their first period was their best in a while; which only stood to reason that the Maple Leafs would come back in the second and third periods. They did exactly that, but the key is that the Devils never lost the lead completely; going into overtime. David Clarkson scored in the high slot in the extra frame to give the Devils a 3-2 win, silence the home crowd, and snap their losing streak. The Devils stretched their winning ways into their next game against Ottawa, though the game itself was a rollercoaster. The visiting Senators pretty much beat on the Devils for the first 30 minutes and went up 3-0. Yet, the Devils managed to comeback from that with two shorthanded goals and two quick third period goals to go up 4-3. Alas, they couldn't seal the win in regulation as the Sens equalized late in a desperate shorthanded-with-goalie-pulled situation. It had to be through the shootout where the Devils would secure the second point and a 5-4 final score. As incredible as that comeback was, there would be no comeback in their next game against Montreal. The Devils didn't play particularly poorly, but they didn't attack enough, they didn't stay out of the box enough, and they couldn't break the Canadiens' trap. Still, they came a penalty shot away from tying it up, but it wasn't to be as the team lost 2-1 to Montreal.
At that point, the Devils were 2-3 heading into a tough week of games: two consecutive back-to-back sets. One would be exclusively on the road: Tampa Bay and Florida. The other would involve the Devils' lone home game of the week, against Dallas and honoring Scott Niedermayer's legendary time with the Devils by retiring his number 27. That would be followed up by a road game in Montreal on the following day. Given the Devils' struggles early in December, it appeared to be a difficult week. They have yet to have won a game in regulation in December at that point.
That latter issue was soon erased in Tampa Bay. The Devils offense exploded for five goals in the first two periods, three of which coming in the second period after a 2-2 first. For most teams, a 5-2 lead heading into the third period would be safe for many teams. Of course, the Devils aren't one of them. The Lightning stormed back in the third period with a power play goal and a last minute goal to make it 5-4. The Devils would hold on for the remaining 34 seconds to win their first game in regulation in December; but they did avoid a third period meltdown. On the next night, the Devils went into Florida and saw a reversal of their last game between each other. The Panthers scored the game's first two goals and the Devils took the game over to make the comeback and get the win. It almost came in the dying seconds of regulation, but the Devils achieved it in a shootout to make it a 3-2 victory.
The second back-to-back turned out to be better than the first. Granted, this set began with a wonderful ceremony that saw Niedermayer's #27 retired and raised to the rafters. And the start of the game was a bit auspicious as Dallas took a 2-1 lead not long after the first. One massive Bryce Salvador save and an Adam Henrique shorthanded goal later and the goals started flowing for the Devils. They racked up two more in the second period to end it 4-2 and they put up two more in the third. Dallas got one in between the Devils' third period goals; but despite their efforts to make it a game, the Devils crushed the Stars 6-3. The six goals scored in regulation remains as the most scored by the team this season, and they came close to matching it on the next night. Over in Montreal, the Devils showed little sign of fatigue in facing off against the Canadiens. They did show some sign of looseness as Montreal took a 3-2 lead halfway through the game. Yet, the Devils battled to tie it up late in the second period thanks to David Clarkson slicing through Montreal's defense. The third period saw the Devils put pressure on Montreal's defense and succeeded with two more goals in the third period - including one from Patrik Elias' that made him the all-time leading goal scorer in franchise history. The Devils won 5-3, their fourth straight game at the time and swept the week.
The good times didn't last however. Hot as they were with 18 goals scored in their last 4 games, they fell to their most hated rivals at home, the New York Rangers. Travis Zajac scored his first goal of the season in the first period, but the Devils just couldn't get to any of the rebounds Henrik Lundqvist was allowing or beat him straight up. The Rangers eventually got on the scoreboard late in the second period with a one-timer in the slot. The visiting rivals took over in a third period that resembled a compilation of everything flawed with the Devils, which even included a game-winning shorthanded goal. The Devils' winning streak was snapped in the 4-1 loss. The third period was a problem in their following game against Washington. The Devils looked great for the first 40 minutes and scored three goals in the second period. Yet, the Caps never gave up on the game and eventually clawed their way back into the game. That's right, the Devils did blow a three goal lead in the third period. They salvaged the second point in the shootout to make it 4-3.
In their final week of the 2011 year, the Devils would hit another low in Carolina. Rather than build up a lead and struggle and scramble to keep it, the Devils were content to have the Hurricanes outplay them for much of the game. Carolina opened with a shorthanded goal and then tacked on two more in a second period where the Devils played like they were under John MacLean again (out-shot 13-2, the first SOG came 16 minutes into the period). The Devils would make it close in the third period, with two goals scored, driven by plays by Anton Volchenkov of all players. Yet, the Devils couldn't come up with the third and one of the stranger empty net goals I've ever seen gave New Jersey a 4-2 loss on the road. Fortunately, that defeat didn't sink the Devils. Perhaps it caused them to rise above the struggles? Whatever it was, the team put in far more solid effort against Buffalo. Even better, they had a 3-1 lead going into the third period and they kept it to win. Their final game of 2011 would be against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins. As the Penguins eventually brought their "A" game, the Devils would not be deterred from their ways. They made life as difficult as possible for the Pens , Martin Brodeur played a great game, and the Devils clamped down on the Pens after they made it 2-1 off a bounce off a backboard. The Devils actually got an empty net goal to seal a 3-1 win to end the month on a high note.
Outside of the games, the Devils had to deal with a few issues and a brand new face. Back on December 12, the Devils made a trade with Anaheim. They dealt Mark Fraser, Rod Pelley, and a 2012 seventh round pick to the Ducks for Kurtis Foster and goalie Timo Pielmeier. While Pielmeier is just a minor league goalie, Foster has been placed into the lineup and the power play immediately, has played an average of over 18 minutes with the Devils, put 19 shots on net in 8 games, and picked up 4 assists on the power play. For a third-pairing defenseman, that's not too bad of a return. He's had to play more than that due to various injuries on defense, however. Those included Andy Greene's foot injury keeping him out of action since the Toronto game and Henrik Tallinder's back spasms. Alexander Urbom and Matt Taormina were called up as replacements at times; Taormina has looked fairly good in his games, while Urbom has had to been protected more often. Fortunately, Tallinder returned to action against in the last game of the month, though Anton Volchenkov picked up a lower body injury in that very game.
The Devils did get healthier at forward as nobody really got hurt (Patrik Elias got sick for a game) and Travis Zajac has returned from his Achilles tendon injury on Scott Niedermayer night. Zajac has been centering Clarkson and Mattias Tedenby for most of the seven games he has played this season. This was done to slowly bring him into the lineup and get into form, since he missed all of training camp and preseason. So far, he's been OK and he should get back into the swing of things in the coming month. That'll create a happy problem for the coaches as they try to figure out how to set the lineup. They'll be at full strength soon enough as Jacob Josefson, who suffered a broken clavicle in October, was cleared to practice in the final week of the year. As the Devils aim to move onwards and upwards in 2012, that's a positive sign; just like finishing December with a 9-5 record.
The Devils scored 42 goals in December and all but 10 of them were scored by the Devils' top two forward lines. (Aside: 6 of those 10 came from David Clarkson.) Needless to say, the honorable mention and the player of the month will be selected among that group. However, I do think it's worth highlighting those two lines: Zach Parise-Adam Henrique-Ilya Kovalchuk; and Dainius Zubrus-Patrik Elias-Petr Sykora. They have carried the Devils on offense, the Elias line takes on tough competition when possible, and the Henrique line faced some tough match-ups on the road and sometimes even won them. As those six went in December, the team followed along.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Ilya Kovalchuk
|Dec. 2011 - Ilya Kovalchuk||14||7||9||16
I had a really hard time deciding between Patrik Elias, NHL Rookie of the Month Adam Henrique and Kovalchuk for the honorable mention. I certainly appreciate Elias and his 5 goal, 9 assist month as well as his franchise record smashing goal in Montreal. Henrique was named by the league as the best rookie with 5 goals and 8 assists in December; though he faded near the end of the month in my opinion. Kovalchuk ate more minutes, led the team in shots on net in the month with 60, and was just more productive than either Elias or Henrique. Kovalchuk gets a lot of heat when something bad happens around him. However, one cannot dispute the importance of a guy who gets 7 goals and 9 assists in 14 games. He only went 4 games without a point. He managed to keep one point streak going at the beginning of the month (4 games, 4 points) as well as throughout that amazing week the Devils swept (4 games, 7 points). He also remains the Devils' one reliable weapon on the power play, as he led the Devils in power play points with 2 goals and 3 assists. (Elias also had 2 PPGs and 3 PPAs; though 3 of those points are directly attributable to Kovalchuk making a play - it's a shared lead.) His low this month in shots on net in a game was two; he hit that mark twice - he scored on one of them at Tampa Bay and he got two assists at Montreal, his other two-shot game. Simply, Kovalchuk had a great month and I'm not sure what more one could ask for. Incidentally, he's still only shooting at 9.9% this season, and he's never finished a season below 12%. Kovalchuk could be lighting the lamp a little more often in 2012; something to look forward to in coming months.
December 2011 Devil of the Month: Zach Parise
|Dec. 2011 - Zach Parise||14||7||10||17||4||8||0||1||1||2||0||56||12.5
I got to say, there were some times I wished the captain did a little more on the ice. Sure, he's always hustling, but what's the point of hustling if it's not leading to something tangible like shots or points. I sure felt silly when I looked up how he did in December. He led the Devils in scoring in the month with 7 goals and 10 assists. Like Kovalchuk, he only had four games without a point; and he only had four fewer shots on net. Like Kovalchuk, Parise played a lot of minutes and was relied on for the team's success in December. Unlike Kovalchuk, Parise did his special teams damage on the penalty kill. He cleared pucks, forced opposing power plays to defend, and picked up a goal and two assists on the PK. Parise also has the lone empty net goal of the month. I know that seems a bit strange to highlight; but the Devils haven't scored one of those since October. The third period has been a problem for the Devils for most of this season, getting that one against Pittsburgh was huge to avoid making that problem larger.
As much as fans have been focusing on Kovalchuk to get points (and he did), Parise needed to do the same in a big way. He did exactly that with a big, 17-point December. Throw in his awesome work on the PK and it's clear that Parise is playing like someone who wants and possibly deserves big money. May it continue for New Jersey, as Zach Parise is the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for December 2011.
#9 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Jul 28, 1984
GP: 14; G: 7; A: 10; Pts. 17; 8 PIM; 56 SOG; 12.5 S%
December 2011 Devil of the Month
How do you feel about how the New Jersey Devils performed in December? Is 9-5 acceptable given the flaws they had? If not, do you think they should have done better or worse? The third period woes and the power play (namely: shorthanded goals against) are certainly glaring issues; but what other areas do the Devils need to improve upon? What do you see as team strengths? What do you expect to see going forward into January, Ottawa game aside? Do you agree with my selection for the Devil of the Month? Please leave your answers and other commentary about how the team has played in this previous month in the comments. Thank you for reading.