It can be said that the New Jersey Devils had a successful month of March. In their busiest schedule of the season, the Devils went 10-5-2. More importantly, in their last game, they clinched a playoff spot. That alone makes 2011-12 a success considering they missed the postseason completely last season. It wasn't as if the Devils limped into a playoff berth. In the four full weeks within March, the Devils earned at least half of all possible points. They didn't have a big streak like in prior months; they just got points consistently. It's what good teams do.
Of course, it wasn't always easy getting those points. The offense metaphorically slowed to a crawl as there were some games where shots on net, much less goals scored, were hard to come by. There were a few games where the defense - be it the defensemen themselves or backchecking forwards - just made errors all over the place that hurt the team. There were a few games where puck movement was so bad that the other team just kept coming in waves. The only consistency throughout the month was the goaltender performance - not results, performance - and the Devils' penalty kill. I will admit that during this month, some of the team's performances - win or lose - some brought doubt as to whether this team could succeed.
However, we must look in the bigger picture. The Devils played a heavy schedule and came out ahead. The offense most definitely showed up on some nights and at the end of the month. That alone should allay some of the concerns of the Devils faithful. The defense has remained stingy overall, helping both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg earn a few shutouts. The team even got healthier as Travis Zajac returned to action near the end of the month and has contributed right away. A 10-5-2 record after all of this is good. So is clinching a playoff spot.
Let's appreciate it before the regular season ends and the all-important postseason play begins by going over what the Devils did in March and name the best players out of the month after the jump.
The Games of March 2012
The Devils entered March on a slide with three straight losses in regulation. Their first game was on the road to Boston, a team who has whipped the Devils earlier this season. Believe it or not, this game wasn't as bad. The Devils actually got a lead in Boston thanks to the rarely successful wraparound goal by David Clarkson. Of course, like the last three periods against Boston, the Bruins turned up the pressure. They only scored one goal, but that was all that was needed to tie it up. The Bruins won in overtime, ending the season series 0-3-1 for the Devils. The 3-4 OT loss stretched that winless streak to four games and concern was setting in about the team's performance and lack of results.
Those concerns were blown away on Friday night. The Devils visited Washington on the second game of a back-to-back and just routed them. It's not like the Caps were struggling at the time; the Devils just went into the Verizon Center, put up three goals in the first period, and then two more in the second. Johan Hedberg stopped everything the Caps threw at him, which wasn't much. Zach Parise hung a hat trick on Michal Neuvirth in less than 10 minutes of ice time. He didn't play much beyond that since he was kept on the bench for precautionary reasons after a dangerous hit; but it didn't matter. The Devils trampled the Capitals 5-0 and we all had reason to feel good.
Then the feelings of frustration came back on Sunday against the Islanders. The Isles started their newest back up, Anders Nilsson, and the Devils decided to not really challenge him until it was too late. The Isles got one past Martin Brodeur while the Devils managed none against a rookie call-up. Simply, the Devils played stupid hockey in a 1-0 loss. Questions came up, such as: Was that big win over Washington a fluke? Can this Devils team get back on track soon?
Fortunately, the rest of the week proved that big was not a fluke and the Devils did get back on track. The Devils hosted the New York Rangers, Our Hated Rivals, and played a mostly good game. The second period was poor in terms of performance; but the first was good, the third period was great, and the Devils got a decisive 4-1 win over the Rangers. The Devils got revenge on the Islanders in general with a similar performance: good first, bad second, great third. Ilya Kovalchuk scored a hat trick in a 5-1 win over the Isles. At the end of the week, the Devils got to see Nilsson again in Long Island - only this time, the Devils would crack him. They put up a much better effort offensively and at in the dying minutes of the game, Clarkson scored a blooper to tie up the game late. One stupid Isles penalty later and Marek Zidlicky converted on a power play 14 seconds after Clarkson scored. The Devils stole a 2-1 win late from the Isles to cap off a successful week.
The Devils kept rolling on the very next night. On a rare Sunday evening game, the Devils hosted the Second Rate Rivals. You know them as the Philadelphia Flyers. There was little drama in this one as the Devils breezed through their banged-up defense. Their forecheck was as effective as it was all season; the board play was dominated by the Devils; and the intensity was constantly high. Save for one early third period goal, the game was controlled by New Jersey. Therefore, they easily won 4-1. Unfortunately, that would be the last decisive win for some time this month.
The Flyers got revenge very quickly as the two teams played each other on Tuesday. It was almost as if both teams switched uniforms. The Devils looked listless and were generally ineffective all game long. The Flyers were superior in possession all game long. The only Devil player who really showed up to play was Brodeur and he couldn't drag the rest of his team to a result. If anything, he prevented a blowout. Even so, the Devils lost 0-3 and suddenly, it's like Sunday's game didn't happen. On Thursday, the Devils hosted Colorado and the team put up a stronger performance on offense. They shelled J-S Giguere with shots. However, the Devils also allowed the Avalanche to put a lot of rubber on Brodeur. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), the two goaltenders played like it was the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals and shut the other team out. The Devils prevailed in a shootout to get the 1-0 win. Retro jersey day on St. Patrick's Day turned out to be a muted, sad affair as the Devils were just stomped into the ice by the Pittsburgh Penguins for sixty minutes. The Penguins won 10 games in a row at the time, but the Devils really didn't put up too much of a fight outside of scoring two goals. Still, they lost 5-2, were out-shot well over a ratio of two-to-one, and looked more like the 1980s Devils teams that wore those old red, white and green jerseys.
The team's woes, particularly on offense, would continue through the next week. Against Our Hated Rivals, the game got national attention for the essentially staged fight at the start of the game. The rest of the game was one for the Devils fans to forget as the skaters made all sorts of mistakes, Brodeur wasn't his usual super-self, and the team gave the away the puck more instead of trying to complete a comeback in the third period. The Devils lost 2-4 to the Rangers with the type of performance you don't want to see after an awful one: another awful one. The Devils got a better result the very next night in Ottawa. With the Senators right behind the Devils in the conference standings, this was an important game and the Devils at least improved their overall performance. The team showed up to put a lot of shots on Ben Bishop, even at risk of allowing about the same of Johan Hedberg. Both goaltenders were excellent. Ilya Kovalchuk's power play blast from the point stood as the only goal in the game in a 1-0 win over Ottawa. The Devils came to shoot again when they hosted Toronto on Friday night. It also helped that the Maple Leafs looked like they didn't care. Yet, despite the vastly superior possession and shot count, the Leafs managed to get up in the game 3-1. James Reimer played out of his mind, but the Devils would tie up the game in the final ten minutes of regulation and come very close to getting that go-ahead goal late. Alas, the Devils faltered in the shootout and so they lost 3-4 to the Maple Leafs. It was a strange game; at least the Devils scored more than one goal and put up over 40 shots on net.
The Devils visited Pittsburgh for the final time of the season on Sunday. Travis Zajac returned to the lineup, Peter DeBoer put new lines together, and the goons were in the press box where they belonged. Of course, Pittsburgh was still Pittsburgh and they just preyed upon the Devils for every loose puck. The Devils got many more shots on net and had several great chances to score that they missed on. The Penguins didn't miss and so the Devils decisively lost 2-5. The performance was better than it was on St. Patrick's Day, but the result was the same. The offense sagged in both shots and goals against Chicago on Tuesday. The Devils played a competitive first period and got a power play goal to go up by one. Then the Blackhawks spent the next forty minutes in regulation mostly with the puck and mostly in New Jersey's end of the rink. Brodeur was fortunately on the top of his game. Yet, he was beaten through a screen in the third period for Chicago to tie it up. The Devils skaters didn't offer a lot of support as they only put up a measly four shots on net in each of the last two periods. Brodeur dragged the team to a shootout and Zajac sealed it in extra innings to give the Devils an undeserved 2-1 win.
It was in the final two games of the month that the offensive woes ceased. It didn't happen in the first period against Tampa Bay on Thursday; but from the second period onward, the Devils started hitting their passes, moved the puck forward with confidence and purpose, and just put a lot of shots on net. While the Lightning scored first and would respond to the first two Devils goals with two more - all from Ryan Malone - the Devils just pulled ahead by torching Dwayne Roloson. Dainius Zubrus kicked it off with a shorthanded goal, Jacob Josefson continued with a turnaround shot, Kovalchuk provided the final equalizer off a dish in front by Adam Henrique, Marek Zidlicky quickly converted another power play from distance, Alexei Ponikarovsky deflected a Bryce Salvador shot early in the third, and Clarkson banged in his own rebound. Yes, the Devils put up six goals in one game and went on to win a comfortable 6-4 win that looked closer than it was on the ice. The offense did not fade in Carolina on the last day of the month. They came out far ahead in shots in the first period, got an early one, blew up the game in the second period with three goals, and tacked on an early third period goal before just playing the game out. All five goals were from different Devils again. Brodeur stopped everything the Canes put on him, which wasn't much. The two points clinched a playoff berth and the Devils did it with authority with a 5-0 win.
In summary of the whole month, the Devils certainly weren't consistent on offense at a minimum. Goals seemingly came at a premium in that six game stretch of the month from March 13 (0-3 to Philly) to March 26 (after 2-5 loss to Pittsburgh). In three of those games, just getting shots on net was troublesome. While they shutout the opposition four times (Washington, Colorado, Ottawa, Carolina), one was that double-shutout against Colorado and the other was a 1-0 game where the Moose had to be excellent to preserve the small lead over Ottawa. On the flipside, the Devils got shutout three times: the first game against the Islanders, the second game against the Flyers, and the Avalanche game. In terms of games against rivals, I can't say the Devils did so well since they split the two against the Rangers and Flyers, they went 2-1 against the Isles but they stole that second win, and they got beaten down by the Penguins twice. That also puts the month in a less favorable light.
The Devils had to grind out more than their share of wins in March. The good news is that they did get to do that. When the playoffs come, having that ability becomes a strength of sorts. Generating shots is still an issue with this team, but at least they can hang with the opposition if they can hold them back. There were a few games where the goalies had to be big and, for the most part, they were. The even better news is that the attack did come alive at points during this month, particularly at the end. I emphasize those last two games since Zajac is now healthy and getting into a groove and the season's nearly done. With only three more games before the playoffs begin, the performances become more valuable than the results and the Devils have had two very good offensive performances. That should (I hope) carry into the beginning of the postseason. Provided they can still be relatively stingy on defense as they have been all season and Brodeur continues his strong play, we can say we learned that this team can be quite good in March when the skaters can effectively move the puck forward and generate shots. When they struggle to do either of them or both, then the whole team suffers - that also is the main takeaway from this month.
Additional Thoughts About the Team's March Performance
Nevertheless, there's not a lot to complain about 10-5-2. There's also not a lot to complain about some of the individual performances. I'll still settle on a single Devil of the Month and a single honorable mention, but I want to point out that several Devils have done quite well. First, some props for Johan Hedberg. The Moose was as good as anyone could ask of a backup with two shutouts and a one goal allowed performance. While the month was largely Brodeur's, Hedberg helped make this month a successful one for New Jersey as any other player.
Clarkson joined Parise and Kovalchuk as players with at least 30 goals on the final day of the month. It's not just proof of depth among the Devils forwards, but also a big exclamation point on a comeback season. To think, I wanted him traded last February. Now, he's become an important part of the offense; his six goals and five assists this month just add to that. The captain also had a good month in production with eight goals and six assists. He's been coming along well in the last few games with at least four shots on net in his last four games. Patrik Elias continued to show why he remains a key component on the team's offense with six goals and ten assists. The return of Travis Zajac has seen some early gains by way of winning plenty of faceoffs and two assists in three games. Jacob Josefson finally got going on the scoresheet. He scored his first goal of the season, scored a second goal later on, and put up five assists.
As far as the defense goes, three players stood out in my view. Marek Zidlicky has not only acclimated himself to the Devils but he's been playing fairly well. He'll sometimes make mistakes in his own end but the coaches clearly trust him enough in general to play him 18-20 minutes. In addition, he's provided a big boost to the offense with two goals and six assists. Peter Harrold was a late call up in the month as a seventh defenseman for the upcoming playoffs. The struggles of Adam Larsson led to a few scratches and Harrold got his chance to show what he could do. He's more than proven he can handle third pairing minutes in the three games he's played in. Enough to have the team demote Matt Taormina. His time was short, but a pleasant surprise all the same.
Lastly, there's Bryce Salvador and you can consider him to be the honorable mention to the honorable mention for Devil of the Month. The defensive defenseman continues to play big minutes and hold himself fairly well. He had a few tough games in March, but for the most part, he's been a rock on the blueline at even strength and on the penalty kill. What was particularly impressive about Salvador was that he actually got more than ten shots on net (15, actually) and four assists. For a player in a role where offense is secondary, that's a nice surprise. I'm very glad he was able to play at all this season. That he's been doing as well as he has been is just excellent. David Sarch of Talking Red actually felt he was the best player of the month for his consistent performances in his own end. I have to disagree with the podcast boss as I think there are two Devils more deserving of accolades.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Ilya Kovalchuk
|March 2012 - Ilya Kovalchuk||17||9||11||20||-3||8||2
Kovalchuk led all Devils in scoring and has inserted himself as one of the top ten scorers in the entire NHL. To think, he had 31 goals and 29 assists all of last season. He matched that total just before the March began and he significantly jumped past it to 80 points. Moreover, Kovalchuk started off the month in the midst of what turned out to be a nine game goalless streak which went three games into March. He even had a four game goalless streak in the middle of it. All that, he still managed nine goals in the ten games he did score in to lead the Devils. He also led them in assists with eleven. He even had the most shots. Kovalchuk did have a few stinkers, usually when the rest of the team also stunk on offense. I suppose that speaks to Kovalchuk's importance to the team. If he's struggling to get through the neutral zone, make passes, and get shots on net, then the rest of the team will likely have problems as well. Regardless, Kovalchuk had an awesome March and deserves additional recognition for that.
Of course, one player was just as important, if not more important, than Kovalchuk in March.
March 2012 Devil of the Month: Martin Brodeur
|March 2012 - Martin Brodeur||14||854||7||5||2||31||2.18||376||345||.918||2|
Yes, I'm flip-flopping the two awarded players from the February Month in Review. Yes, his numbers in March weren't as good as they were in February. The fact is that Brodeur was the lone Devil player to show up on every night. OK, the second game against the Rangers wasn't a good game; his gaffe behind the net in the second Pittsburgh game was real bad; and the shootout against Toronto wasn't good either. Still, Brodeur would put up games with big saves after big saves even when the rest of the skaters didn't perform. Brodeur would bring his "A" game even when the offense would take a period or three off. Brodeur would stay active when the team was pinned back and the other team just overwhelmed the defense. Brodeur kept the Devils in several games this month or at the least kept them from being the horrid blowouts the team performance may have deserved.
Brodeur was a key reason why the Devils got any result at all against Boston; matched Giguere shot for shot in a double-shutout shootout win; dragged the Devils to a point and then two against Chicago; and . He kept teams at bay regardless of whether the Devils would get several goals (e.g. first Rangers game, second Islanders game, the first Flyers game) or not (e.g. the first Islander game, the first Penguins game, etc.). I value consistent performance and while the numbers aren't as great, there was no reason to worry about Brodeur started any of the 14 games he played in. In every start, you knew Brodeur was going to do his job and do it as well as he could. I see no reason to punish him when the skaters didn't score or if the defense lapsed. Again, his bad moments were few and far between and his good moments were plentiful throughout the month. Therefore, I will name Martin Brodeur the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for March 2012.
#30 / Goalie / New Jersey Devils
May 06, 1972
14 GP - 7-5-2 - 2.18 GAA - 91.8 Sv% - 2 SO
March 2012 ILWT Devil of the Month
This all said, what are your thoughts on the team's performance in March? Are you pleased with how they got to 10-5-2? Are you concerned with some of the performances going forward? Can it be seen as a success that the Devils clinched a playoff spot in March, or do you now feel they can do more? What would you like to see the Devils do to finish off the season as they head into the playoffs? What do you think of my selections for Devil of the Month and honorable mention? If you disagree, who would you pick for either spot and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team did in March in the comments. Thank you for reading.