November needed to be a positive month for the New Jersey Devils. They went 3-5-4 and were in the wrong part of a weak Metropolitan Division. They needed to be successful just to get back in the mix much less be regarded as a legitimate playoff team. The good news is that actually happened. The Devils finished the month at "NHL .500" and have been right behind Our Hated Rivals in the standings for third place. The team finished 8-6-1. While positive, a closer look shows that it could have been worse - and maybe even better.
The Month that Was
The beginning of the month almost could not have gone any worse. They had a back-to-back set with Philadelphia at home and Minnesota on the road. The Devils and Flyers played a terrible game and they lost 1-0. It was a simply sad performance as the team put up a mere 14 shots on net. The Wild game went even worse as they lost 4-0. The team sorely missed Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac, Jon Merrill got hurt on his second shift of the game, and the game just got away from them. At the time, it looked like more losses were on the horizon as the schedule started to become busier.
Fortunately, an amazing thing happened. Cam Janssen scored a goal. Well, that's amazing in of itself. The Devils got some players back from injury - Zajac, Anton Volchenkov, and Peter Harrold - for a road game in Philadelphia and they helped out. Martin Brodeur was strong in net and the team put up two goals before Jaromir Jagr stashed in an empty netter to make it a 3-0 win. It would be the first win of the month and certainly not the last. The Devils built on that solid performance with an even stronger one on the very next night. Unfortunately, the opponent was Toronto and their goaltender played out of his mind, which is key to Toronto's strategy under Randy Carlyle. Jonathan Bernier was tested as much as one could hope and he passed every one. Phil Kessel torched an entire PK for a highlight reel goal. It looked like Toronto was going to sneak out a win but then Michael Ryder's shot bounced off Bernier and in. A shootout was necessary, the Devils again didn't even score in it, and so they lost 2-1 in Toronto. But what was encouraging was how well they played in it. Plus, the one point from that game meant three in a back-to-back set, which was then better than the three they had earlier this season.
The good performance in Toronto surely led to what would be a big breakout performance against Nashville. Carter Hutton was in net as Nashville's regular starter, Pekka Rinne, was out injured. He wasn't doing very well and the Devils simply lit him up. Five different Devils scored: Jagr, Janssen (yes, really), Marek Zidlicky, Zajac, and Mattias Tedenby. The game was clearly in control by New Jersey from start to finish. They earned their 5-0 win over the Predators, arguably the most dominant win the team has had all season so far. Two nights later, the Devils visited Our Hated Rivals and had to weather a lot of storms. Volchenkov went down injured and the Rangers smelled blood all night long. Brodeur put up a wonderful performance just to keep his team in it. Ryan Carter beat the King of Rangerstown twice off angled shots. While the equalizer was given up in the third, Dainius Zubrus pounded in a loose puck off a block to make it 3-2. The Devils were out-played in that one but left MSG with a big regulation win. It looked like good times were just ahead.
They were but not without some dips in the road. On Friday night, the Devils hosted Los Angeles. The Kings had a well-earned reputation for being dominant on the puck. The Devils managed to make it an even affair. Unfortunately, they could not stop Ben Scrivens. Scrivens got hot and the Devils just couldn't beat him. Worse, they didn't put up much of an effort after Dwight King re-directed a shot by Jake Muzzin past Cory Schneider. They only put up three shots, one was a dump-in, and a power play was utterly wasted. A late empty netter made it a 2-0 loss to the Kings, a disappointing sight given the last two games. The Devils would rebound on the very next night against Pittsburgh. The Penguins definitely did plenty to make the Rock nervous, especially on the power play. But Martin Brodeur was fantastic. He was only beaten by on a breakaway from Chris Kunitz. Meanwhile, Andy Greene got a goal thanks to an error by Marc-Andre Fleury; Adam Larsson put the team up 2-1 off a great shot from the right circle; and Jagr made the most of a defensive zone turnover in the third. Brodeur made sure the Pens wouldn't make it a one goal game, Jagr put home a pretty ENG, and the Devils beat the division leaders 4-1. Even with the Kings loss, going 3-1-0 would be their best week of results of this season.
Of course, there was little time to celebrate as the team headed off on a three-game road trip through California. Games at Anaheim, Los Angeles, and San Jose within four days. Games against three very good teams. Amazingly, the Devils came out of it with two dramatic victories. After an early deficit in Anaheim, the Devils got their power play functioning for two goals. Anaheim responded with two more, but Jagr put home a late equalizer to force overtime. In the ensuing overtime period, Zajac kicked a puck at Jonas Hiller off the rush. Ben Lovejoy threw that rebounded puck against Corey Perry's leg by accident and it went right into the net. It was a 4-3 OT win that stunned Anaheim. On the next night, the Kings threw everything including the kitchen sink at Cory Schneider. The Devils were out-shot 22-5 after the first two periods. It was dominance but somehow Carter threw up a backhander that got in. Justin Williams tapped in the remains of a Anze Kopitar shot to tie it up, but the Kings just couldn't solve Schneider. After matching minors ended in OT, Zidlicky found Jagr cutting to the net. The legend made a move and snuck it under Scrivens' pad to steal a 2-1 OT victory at the Staples Center. In the third game of this trip, San Jose resembled Los Angeles except that they scored two goals in the first period amid their heavy attacks. A Scott Hannan shot got through traffic and Brodeur and a wide-open Tyler Kennedy slammed in a one-timer. The Sharks made even strength look like a power play for two periods, but Brodeur kept the game at 0-2. Elias fired in a shot past Antti Niemi to make it 2-1 which raised some hopes for another late equalizer. But that would not happen thanks to Niemi and the Sharks skaters, so the Devils lost 1-2. But there was little to be disappointed about given that they arguably stole two wins in California.
However, disappointment would come in before Thanksgiving. The team returned home for a Monday night game against Winnipeg. The hope was that since the Jets weren't one of the best teams in the league and certainly not a strong possession team, the Devils would do better. They certainly did but they didn't win the game. Their offense was undercut by a myriad of blocks, both counted and uncounted. The Jets just needed one wide open man on a rush and an excellent shot by Evander Kane off a faceoff to win it. A deflection by Elias in the slot halved the lead but there wouldn't be a second goal. An empty netter just increased the score. The Devils lost 3-1 to Winnipeg in what was a frustrating game to watch. The losing continued on Wednesday with Carolina, the first half of a home-and-home set. The Canes got up first on a shot Brodeur should have stopped, made it 2-0 when Tuomo Ruutu was left wide open in front for a one-timer, had Zajac answer with a shot through Cam Ward, and then put up two more goals thanks to an unfortunate deflection by Elias on a Ron Hainsey shot and a shorthanded breakaway by Patrick Dwyer that made Brodeur look silly. The Devils would put up a comeback effort in the third period with goals from Greene and Jagr; but 4-1 was too much of a hole to dig out of. The Devils lost their third straight game by a 4-3 score and concern was mounting. Would the Devils limp to the end of the month and find themselves heading back to the bottom of the division?
Thankfully, the answer to that was no. The Devils put up a good performance in Carolina on Black Friday. They scored first to avoid a 0-2 deficit. While the Canes turned it into 2-1 in the second, the Devils did come close to tying it up. They really made their mark in a masterful third period. Andrei Loktionov scored his first goal in seemingly forever to tie it up, Adam Henrique converted a power play thanks to an Eric Gelinas' shot bouncing off a defenseman right to him, Jon Merrill got his first NHL point when Zubrus re-directed his shot to beat Ward, and Jagr put in his own rebound in a one-on-one. The team put up four goals in the third period, all four lines looked great, and the team won decisively 5-2 to avoid a longer losing streak. The Devils were again dominant in possession in their final game of the month against Buffalo. However, they couldn't seemingly buy a goal. They either found Jhonas Enroth, the post (twice), or the endboards (a lot). The Sabres only had one good period but even in that one, the Devils had their share of opportunities. The Devils dominated the first and third to little avail, so overtime was necessary. A shootout was looming but was thankfully prevented when Steve Bernier stopped and fired a wrister. It beat Enroth and gave the Devils a 1-0 win. That victory put the Devils back at "NHL .500" and made the month successful. It was a bigger shot than just what it was on that night.
Over the course of looking back through November, there were three main themes that stuck out to me. The first is that this past month confirmed what we thought. This is a strong possession team that plays low event games and doesn't score a lot of goals. I wrote that last month and nothing that happened in November really changed that. Yes, they had four games with four or more goals scored, but they also got shutout three times and were held to one goal in four games. Second, the Devils have been without multiple players due to injury at one point or another. Bryce Salvador and Ryane Clowe missed the entire month. The team was without Elias, Zajac, Merrill, Volchenkov, Larsson, Harrold, Stephen Gionta, and Carter at various points. While the importance of those players vary, the team has had to fill in plenty of holes. Fortunately, the Devils' defense has held up well even with two rookies playing. Those rookies, Gelinas and Merrill, have been quite good but it's still not an ideal situation. After Elias and Zajac returned, the team hasn't had too many losses at forward, though they haven't been as productive as one would like. Third, the goaltending got a lot better in November. Brodeur got hot, which meant fewer games for Schneider. Even with a bad performance in his last appearance, Brodeur finished November with a 93.2% save percentage in nine games and Schneider was even better at 94.1% in six games. I don't think either is likely to continue, but it's another reason why the Devils put up better results in November.
Again, there's no time to relax, celebrate, or even get worried. The Devils begin December tonight. They have back-to-back sets to end each of the four full weeks of the month to go with six other games. Seven of those fourteen games are within the division, so there's additional pressure to do well. The hope is that they build on a 8-6-1 month to an even more successful run. The fear is that they'll slip up and the team will go into 2014 with struggles. Hockey rarely stops in-season. At least November went much better than October. There's that.
Devil of the Month
There were three Devils that really impressed me. Brodeur was one if only for doing so, so well after such a terrible and awful start. Seriously, a 93.2% save percentage and two shutouts over nine games is simply great. A shame that it will not likely last. Greene was another because he has truly been the boss on the blueline. With various defensive partners as well as multiple changes on defense by necessity (Gelinas and Merrill have done well but they're still rookies), Greene has continued to play big minutes against tough competition. Who else could do it among the defensemen on the roster? Who else would you want anyway because he's been doing so, so wel. Greene still comes out ahead in possession (55% Corsi in 5-on-5 play) even with the second-worst offensive zone start percentage (46.2% right now). On top of that, he has put up two goals and eight assists in November. Greene has been great at both ends of the rink. I almost want to name him Devil of the Month. I appreciate him anyway, as should you.
But I can't. One other player had more points than Greene. He certainly had many more goals than anyone else in November. Of course it's Jaromir Jagr. He put up eight goals and four assists in 15 games. Let's recall what those points were: He put the Pittsburgh game out of reach with a big insurance goal. He scored the dramatic equalizer to force OT in Anaheim and stole the Kings game in OT. He started the goalfest against Nashville. He made an equalizer technically possible in the first Canes game and put an exclamation point in the second Canes game. He set up Zajac in the Nashville game which helped him get a bit going in scoring, he sprung Zajac and Zubrus for the game winner in Rangerstown, and he picked up two helpers in the second Canes game. A majority of his points had an impact while being the main focus on the team's top line. He also had two ENGs, which is always a good sign because it meant they won. The Devils still don't score a lot of goals, but the Zubrus-Zajac-Jagr line has been a consistent threat due to Jagr playing as well as he has been. Let me put it this way. Without Greene, the D would be in trouble. Without Jagr, I think the offense would be in even bigger trouble. I shudder to think how the team would be without Jagr's contributions and so I give him in the edge. For the second straight month, I name Jaromir Jagr the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month of November 2013. Now watch him pull two points in a game Devils where did not deserve them.
Now that December begins in earnest for the Devils, what are your final thoughts for how the team did in November? Did 8-6-1 meet your expectations? Based on what you saw in November, what do you expect to see in December? What, if anything, can the Devils do differently to do better? Can they improve? Who would you say was the best Devil in November? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about what the Devils did in November in the comments. Thank you for reading. Ryan will have passing numbers through the first twenty games up later today.