Success brings a series of glove taps and fist bumps. #26 would know that. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils had an up-and-down month of January. I like that phrase "up-and-down." It perfectly describes how the Devils did in the past month. They had dips in performances and deservedly lost. They rebounded with better performances that earned victories. Most importantly, it allows one to call something average without using the word. The Devils finished January with a record of 6-4-2. Alternatively, the Devils won half of the games they played. They began the month sitting in sixth in the East by a small margin and they ended it in seventh, with several games in hand on the sixth place team. To be fair, that's an average run of results. How they achieved them demonstrates the up-and-down nature of how they played.
Further stats lend more credence to their spot around the middle of the NHL. According to the league's site, the team is currently eighteenth in the NHL in goals per game with 2.53 and seventeenth in goals allowed per game with 2.80. The team penalty kill ranks among the best in the league; but they took a step back from being brilliant to just being great. The team power play did have enough shining moments for improvement. According to Behind the Net, the Devils can boast being twelfth in close-score Fenwick%; but the actual percentage is closer to just being average at 50.73%. The team still does an excellent job in preventing shots in 5-on-5 play, but they're still struggling to generate shots on net in those same 5-on-5 situations. The defense remains prone to some real frustrating errors; goaltending still stands at 90% in 5-on-5; but at least the offense is shooting at 8% - the sixteenth best mark in the NHL per Behind the Net.
Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised. They played a relatively difficult group of opponents, with only three games against teams sitting well outside of the playoffs at the time of the game. More important than that, way back in September we collectively felt that the team would be around where they are - fighting for a playoff spot in the lower half of the East. That's where they are and what will likely be their situation through February and March. To that end, the 6-4-2 month didn't hurt; the Devils are still firmly on the playoff bubble. Yet, it reduces the room for error going forward.
Was it a horrible month? Not really, though there were some horrible moments. Can the Devils improve from this past month? Certainly, they did display their quality on a number of occasions in this past month. Will they do better? We'll see. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take a look back at the month of January as well as identify as to who was the best Devil of the last month.
The Games of January 2012
The first game of the new year didn't go so kindly for the Devils. They traveled up to Ottawa and got beaten on by the Senators for the most part. The Sens took the game to the Devils and it was a wonder they weren't blown out of Kanata, Ontario. Instead, the Devils picked up a 2-0 lead and saw it whittled away. The Senators took the game in overtime, scoring a power play goal to make it a 3-2 loss for New Jersey. I felt the point the Devils did get was undeserved. Two nights later, Devils fans got a first hand look at how bad domination can look. The Boston Bruins arrived at the Rock and wrecked the Devils. The home team did get on the scoreboard first and the first period wasn't too bad since Boston got a fortunate deflection off a skate to tie it up and a power play goal. But from the second period onward, everything went Boston's way. The Devils could do little in response except suffer and that's precisely what they did. Boston licked New Jersey 6-1 and all of a sudden the new year isn't looking so good.
The Devils would rebound after that disappointing start to the month. The Devils hosted Florida in their next game and it proved to be a more even affair. The Devils did out-attempt the Panthers and kept their top forward line in check. Still, the puck control was sloppy for both sides and New Jersey's fourth line showed why they are so reviled. Patrik Elias thankfully played very well in his 1,000th career hockey game and was instrumental to the Devils' result. He scored the team's second goal, set up Ilya Kovalchuk's eventual game winning goal, and contributed in other ways. The Devils won the game 5-2, which was closer than it looks since it was 3-2 before the final minute where NJ put in two empty net goals. The Devils began a four-game road trip in Pittsburgh on the very next night. In this one, it was similar to the Ottawa game in that the Penguins pounded the Devils over and over with shots on net and shooting attempts. Yet, the Devils were able to score thrice - one at even strength, one on the power play, and one shorthanded. Martin Brodeur was dominant and was only beaten once. It wasn't the greatest of performances, but a 3-1 win over a very talented Pittsburgh team was a great way to begin the road trip. The back-to-back wins certainly alleviated the bitterness that came with the first two games of the month.
The Devils weren't completely out of the woods just yet. They traveled to Canada for the last time this season with games in Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. The Calgary game began as a nightmare. Martin Brodeur allowed two goals on five shots. Brodeur was pulled for Johan Hedberg, who promptly gave up two goals on three shots. The Devils were abysmal in the first period and the game was essentially decided at 4-0 Calgary after the first 20 minutes. New Jersey would get some consolation goals and played like the game could be competitive from their efforts. Alas, Calgary tacked on two more goals so the Devils' goals were just that: consolation. The Devils lost 6-3 and Matt Evans reported on all of the damage. The Devils sort of got their acts together in Edmonton the next night. Johan Hedberg played very well, but the Devils skaters put in a lackluster performance. A Oilers team missing several of their top players on top of not being all that good to begin with controlled the puck and the game; and the Devils took several needless penalties. Still, Kovalchuk got a shorthanded goal to put the Devils up first, Hedberg was only beaten once, and Zach Parise got an overtime winner on a power play effort to get the 2-1 win. As Kevin wrote in his recap, it was a good result but not a good performance. The Devils would do better in Winnipeg. They weren't great, but better. Martin Brodeur got his groove back with one soft goal against excepted. The defense collectively played one of their best games of the season in both ends of the rink; Kurtis Foster scored his first goal as a Devil to tie up the game and Adam Larsson set up the game winner from Elias. The Devils won 2-1 in regulation and to end a successful road trip despite some of the actual on-ice performances.
The Devils would end the month with five straight home games (a sixth is the team's first in February). Normally, a long home stand is a good thing as players can remain local and the team has the benefit of the last change for several games. The first game couldn't have started any better. The Devils hosted Winnipeg and really put them to the sword. While the Devils didn't really dominate the Jets for 60 minutes; they didn't have to thanks to the goals they scored. The Devils scored five goals, four of them before the halfway mark in the game. The Devils got a chance to use all of their players throughout the game and even when the Jets got one on the board, the Devils answered it minutes later to make it 5-1 and they held on to easily win the game. In retrospect, it would be the apex of this month.
The "down" part of the "up-and-down" hit the Devils over the next three games. The Devils hosted Boston and truthfully gave the B's a tougher fight than the last game between the two teams. The Devils scored early and tried as hard as they could to get a second goal in the second period. The Devils were the better of the two teams on the ice for the first two periods; but a team like Boston has the quality to turn it up in the third period. That quality showed up and hammered three goals past Brodeur within the first ten minutes of the third period to take a commanding lead. It wasn't just the goals, the Bruins held the Devils to no shots on net in that ten minute slaughter. The Devils ultimately lost 4-1 as the Bruins just overwhelmed them for a period. While that just snapped a streak, the Devils didn't get any result against Philadephia two days later. The Devils and Flyers played an ugly, sloppy game of hockey. New Jersey wasn't that bad at evens; but they got wrecked on special teams. They suffered on the PK, their power play was ineffectual as usual, and so Philly cruised to a 4-1 win. It was exactly what the Devils didn't want after the Boston game, and it had to go against a rival of all teams.
With the All Star Game weekend looming, the Devils hosted Buffalo and the frustration continued. The Devils did everything well against the Sabres after a sloppy first period. They out-shot them by a 2:1 ratio. They put a lot of pressure on Ryan Miller. Yet, the Devils could only score one goal - on the power play, no less - in regulation. The Devils did their best to get that second goal but it just didn't happen. Making matters worse was that Buffalo's lone goal came off a fluke bounce off a dump-in that laid a puck alone out in front. The Devils at least got to a shootout to avoid a regulation loss, but they lost in sudden death to end a not-so-greatly-played game. Kevin said it best in his recap of the 2-1 shootout loss, the Devils were unfortunate.
The month would end on a high note. After three winless games and three straight one-goal-scored performances, the Devils put in a more fruitful effort against the hated New York Rangers on the final day of the month. The game itself was at a high tempo and filled with everything one would expect in a rivalry game: lots of physical play, frenetic action, and all kinds of moments that made one team's fans ecstatic and put the other team's fans in agony. The Rangers went up first, but Parise responded in the second period as the Devils' attack picked up. The Rangers went up again early in the third and held onto the lead for a while until the Devils' power play got an odd-man rush up ice and Kovalchuk tied up the game. The Rangers immediately responded less than a minute later. But the Devils got a great bounce off a dump-in and David Clarkson tied it up in the final minute of the game. Overtime proved fruitless, but the Devils prevailed in a shootout to end the month with a positive - a 4-3 shootout win over a hated rival. A small "up" after a considerable "down."
One gets the sense that the Devils tend to streak along the schedule with some successes before dropping a few. It was certainly the story of January. Whether the Devils will break it in a positive way (win more often) or a negative way (lose more often) remains to be seen. Fortunately or not, we'll find out very soon. We're at the point of the season where everything comes quite quickly. The schedule will appear to be more compact and every positive result is more important than the performance. The Devils started the month on a playoff bubble, they ended it on a playoff bubble, and so they will remain short of a big surge or a big slump.
Injuries have certainly have made the Devils' efforts more difficult through January. Andy Greene remained out until Tuesday's game against the Rangers with an ankle injury. Henrik Tallinder returned to action from back spasms to start the year; but he's been out since January 19 as blood clots were discovered in his legs. Travis Zajac briefly played in the start of January but he's been shelved since the first week of the month due to soreness from his Achilles injury from the summer. Adam Henrique has missed a few games with a groin strain and remains day to day. At least Jacob Josefson returned to being an active player after recovering from a broken clavicle in the middle of January.
The Devils did add two new players to their roster. As Mattias Tedenby continued to show very little reason to stick around in the NHL and call ups (e.g. Tim Sestito, Steve Zalewski) failed to stick, the Devils acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky for a pick and defenseman Joe Sova. At the time of the deal, I called it an excellent rental. While Ponikarovsky only played three games with the Devils, he has proven to be a better left winger on the third line than anyone else the Devils have tried to put there all season. He even scored a goal in his first game as a Devil, the lone goal against Philly. The Devils also signed Steve Bernier to a two-way contract before the Rangers game. Bernier was in training camp with New Jersey and failed to make the team. He did sign with Albany and then broke his hand before he could really perform. While 3 goals and 3 assists in 17 AHL games isn't all that impressive; Bernier does have NHL experience, a big body, and some skill. The signing makes the Devils a little deeper at right wing and hopefully will bolster the bottom six forwards, who collectively haven't contributed much this season unless their name was David Clarkson. It remains to be seen as to whether the Devils will make more moves to their roster; otherwise, the Devils will just hope to get healthy and sort their roster out as it goes.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Ilya Kovalchuk
|GP||G||A||P||+/-||PIM||PPG||PPA||SHG ||SHA ||SOG||PCT|
|Jan. 2011 - Ilya Kovalchuk||12||8||3||11||1||4||2||3||2||0||57||14.0|
In a month full of ups and downs, one has to laud those who have been consistent. Since the offense is largely driven by the top two lines, having a player providing results at a seemingly regular basis really stands out. Ilya Kovalchuk was such a player for the Devils in January. In this past month, he led the Devils in goals with 8, which includes two power play strikes and two shorthanded goals. The most impressive part was how he had some good nights in possession and continued to put shots on net. 17 games into the season, Kovalchuk was a big negative in adjusted Corsi rate despite favorable zone starts and competition. Now 48 games into the season, the level competition increased for Kovalchuk and his rate has improved such that when adjusted it's about even. That's not great in general, but it's big for a player who's never really been about driving play forward. In January, Kovalchuk consistently led the Devils in shots on net and shooting attempts. Kovalchuk's aggression on offense was obvious and he was one of the few players to bring it on almost every night - leading the offense himself. And it's definitely been productive given his 8 goals. I believe Kovalchuk can go from strength to strength in coming months; he wasn't shooting way over his head at 14% and he was creating a lot of his own shots. Let's hope he does if only for the offense's sake.
January 2012 Devil of the Month: Patrik Elias
|Jan. 2011 - Patrik Elias||12||5||8||13||-3||2||2||3||0||0||23||21.7|
You know, I very nearly named Kovalchuk the Devil of the Month. Kovalchuk didn't have a shotless night and was only held quiet in the games against Boston among his other accolades. But I have to give it to Patrik Elias. Yes, he had some horrid nights in terms of Corsi. Yes, he didn't always win his match-ups. Yes, Elias may not shoot at 21.7% next month but we know he's going to be the proverbial straw that stirs the drink going forward. Still, Elias remains as Peter DeBoer's go-to forward in tough situations, as he continues to center the line that draws the toughest opposition. Over this season, Elias remains as one of the few Devils to drive the play forward. What really made Elias stand out in January was his production.
Elias scored four goals and assisted on seven others in a seven game point streak that lasted from January 6 (his 1,000th career game) through January 19 (the day after he was honored for his 1,000th game with the Devils). Elias was held pointless in only three games and if he can get something against Montreal tomorrow, we can say he's begun a new streak. Elias had his ups and downs in January. Yet even on a night where he was held shotless, he could still make a play that would lead to a score - and Elias did that twice. Like Kovalchuk, Elias is crucial to the team's offensive success. He plays in all situations and has been productive against tough competition. Unlike Kovalchuk, Elias put up a big point streak right in the middle of the month that helped the Devils go 5-2 in the standings. That consistency was huge in a month that wasn't exactly consistent by the team as a whole. You can go either way between the two forwards, but I'm in favor of Patrik Elias as the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for January 2012.
#26 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 13, 1976
12 GP - 5 G - 8 A - 13 Pts. - 23 SOG - 21.7 S%
January 2012 Devil of the Month
How do you feel about how the New Jersey Devils performed in January? Is 6-4-2 acceptable given the situation they had (e.g. opponents, injuries, etc.)? Is it reasonable to believe the Devils will perform better in February? What parts of their game do the Devils need to improve to succeed in the future? What do you expect them to do in February based on how they did in January? Do you agree with my selection for the Devil of the Month? Should have I selected Kovalchuk; or perhaps someone completely different? Please leave your answers and other commentary about how the team has played in this previous month in the comments. Thank you for reading.