A slump began in February, continued into March, and the New Jersey Devils continue to fight for every point with dropped ones all over the place. Whereas the Devils faded in February to finish with an average 7-6-1 record, the effects really shows in their March record of 5-5-5. They've earned as many points as they did in February but it's that last digit that hurts a bit. Four shootout losses out of six shootouts, which means the Devils gave away four points they really could use right now as they try to scrap their way into the playoffs.
What March proved is what we know about the team. They're a strong possession team that doesn't score a lot of goals and when they make an error on defense, it costs the team. As such, seven games that could have been decided in regulation were not, which meant seven points were given to opponents. Three of those five regulation losses came partially because of the errors in the back-end and a lack of scoring to make up for it. The other two were one-goal games where the team didn't. The good news is that the Devils did have a couple nights where they got the bounces, the shots, and the defensive performance required to win five games. The bad news that this is the time of the season where results are more important than just having a good performance.
In the midst of all of this, the Devils have been struck by a few injuries. Martin Brodeur was out at the end of February with a back injury and he did not return until March 21, where he won his first appearance and got credited for a goal. Alexei Ponikarovsky was ruled out of a number of games with an apparent groin injury. Henrik Tallinder was sidelined with a sprained ankle. The Devils were without Stephen Gionta and Bryce Salvador for most of the game against Ottawa, which left the team shorthanded. The biggest one of them all is Ilya Kovalchuk, who injured his shoulder in the third period against Florida on March 23. Kovalchuk will remain out for two to four weeks and for a team that doesn't generate a lot of shots as a team to begin with, it's a big loss.
The Devils did have a few new additions. The team acquired Tom Kostpoulos from waivers back on March 6 and he's been a mainstay of the fourth line ever since. The Devils also traded a conditional fourth round draft pick to St. Louis for Matt D`Agostini, another right winger. It was another small deal that could yield big rewards, similar to the trade made for Andrei Loktionov in February. Not long after Stefan Matteau was sent back to juniors, Harri Pesonen was called up from Albany and has looked good on the fourth line in a number of games, which has helped keep Krystofer Barch in the press box. The team now has more bodies at right wing and they're not playing a goon regularly as they got their starting goaltender back and still carry eight defensemen.
Again, the issue is with scoring. The team is still shooting in the low 7% area at evens, the power play doesn't consistently attack, and it's hindered the Devils' chances in games even when they do very well in other aspects. Only Loktionov and Adam Henrique have been shooting hot and they don't shoot nearly as much as they may should. If the team's shooting luck improves and they can continue the level of even strength possession and more recent defensive play, then the team could be fine. But that early slump and their dropped points in March could come back to haunt them in April.
The Games of March 2013
The Devils headed into March with three straight losses. In their first of the month in Buffalo, the Devils actually managed to score three goals on a goaltender for the first time in those three losses. Alas, they also allowed three to the Sabres. A shootout was necessary and the Devils didn't win it, so they picked up their first point yet continued their winless streak to four games. As Jerry indicated in his recap, the popular refrain of "played well but not enough for the win" was there from the get-go.
The winless streak would not end. In Toronto on March 4, the Devils got two goals from Marek Zidlicky and a 2-1 lead heading into the third period. The third period continued a nightmare from Moose as Johan Hedberg got ripped for two bad goals against and a third one because the team as a whole laid an egg. The night ended at 4-2 Toronto and a streak increased to five games. On the very next night, the Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. The quick turnaround didn't lead to much better from the team. The Devils played a good first period but one mistake in their own end made it 1-0 Tampa Bay. The Bolts opened the game wide open with a odd-man rush and an individual effort from Alexander Killorn to make it 3-0 the vistors and Moose replaced by Keith Kinkaid to cheers. The skaters didn't up their play and conceded a fourth goal before they got on the board themselves. A shorthanded goal and a power play goal gave the Devils some life, but it was too little too late. The Devils lost 5-2, the game was truly a poor one, and the losing streak became six games long.
Fortunately, that would be as far as it would go though the Devils definitely did it the hard way on March 7 when they hosted Buffalo. The team yet again left a dangerous forward wide open on a power play, which made it easy for him to score. A defensive error led to a sequence of events to a goal against. The Devils carried the play and did their best to beat Jhonas Enroth but they needed a late push, a big rebound, and a hard shot from Patrik Elias on Enroth's flank to tie it up within the final minute of regulation. A shootout was necessary against Buffalo, though this time the Devils won it. The streak ended at six with a 3-2 shootout win. Though the problems from the slump persisted, the win at the time was too good. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn't last. On March 9, the Devils went down to Raleigh to play and get blown out by the Carolina Hurricanes. The Devils gave up two quick goals, got a lifeline early, and then proceeded to get rolled over in the second period to make it 5-1 after two. Two consolation goals and a lot of attempts driven by score effects made the game look closer than it was. But the 6-3 road loss was a horrid game after getting that crucial win. I would thought the the slump would then continue.
At least it didn't take six games for the Devils to get their next win. In fact, it happened on the very next night on March 10. The Devils hosted the Jets and did something they haven't done since the middle of February: score the game's first goal. On top of that, the Devils made it a two goal lead when Stephen Gionta rushed in and slid one through Ondrej Pavelec's five hole. The Devils looked great early. However, an unfortunate and accidental deflection of a shot off Andy Greene's stick make it 2-1 and a blistering shot by Evander Kane in a 2-on-1 in the second tied it up. Even when the Devils played a good game and didn't make horrid mistakes, they couldn't get enough in regulation to get the victory. In that regard, there was remnants of the slump. However, they would get it through the shootout - their last shootout win this month. So the 3-2 win had the Devils prevail going into their rivalry game against Philadelphia.
The game against Philadelphia was a month to the day after their last regulation win where they scored more than three goals on a goalie. Somehow, someway, the Devils managed to repeat that production on March 13. The Devils scored first, got a fortunate bounce after Philly tied it up, and Kovalchuk added a shorty to make it 3-1 after the first. The Devils rolled on with a beautiful goal from Andrei Loktionov that Braydon Coburn is still having nightmares aboutand tacked on a power play goal to make 5-1. Philly added a consolation goal but it was a decisive beat down. It was the sort of game one would hope the Devils would use to build on for better results. It would make a great narrative: "Devils stomped on rival, used additional air to get to higher platform."
Reality said no. The Devils and Flyers played again in Philly on March 15 and this time Ilya Bryzgalov bailed his team out repeatedly. While David Clarkson scored his first goal since February 15 (which was against the Flyers), the Devils just couldn't jam on additional puck into the net. A shootout ensued and the Flyers won it for a 2-1 shootout loss to New Jersey. At the time, not a big deal as the Devils took three out of four points against a rival. However, the Devils' lack of scoring stood out in their March 16 game against Montreal at the Rock. After they honored Jacques Caron and a poor first period, the Devils responded by carrying the play and driving the attack. Though, one giveaway by Anton Volchenkov got Montreal on the board and one big giveaway by Zidlicky led to the game winning goal and the Devils couldn't get their efforts rewarded. They lost 2-1 to a then-hot team. The big rivalry game on March 20. In a first period that yielded a terrible shorthanded goal, a great bounce for a power play goal, a flank at the post, a seeing-eye goal from Volchenkov, the Devils thought they weathered the storm. One bad line change and form by Moose made it 3-2 and try as they might, the Devils couldn't score the equalizer. A third straight loss, their second by one goal, and all despite out-performing the other team at evens. Same low S%, different night as I wrote then. In those three games, Moose let up only one bad goal, helped out for that ugly shorthanded goal against by the Rangers, and was otherwise solid as one could ask of a goaltender. The lack of goals for really undercut the team in this month and you could say that for some of the other games earlier in March.
Nevertheless, the fans were happy to see Brodeur back in net in Raleigh and the night went a lot better for the Devils. They got some incredible luck when Jordan Staal attempted a pass back to the point during a delayed call, he missed his intended target, and the puck sailed into the empty net. Brodeur got credited for that goal. After a rush by the Hurricanes, the Devils settled the game down and were able to break the game wide open with two goals from two good shots off two good bounces in the second period and a second power play goal - on a goalie - to cruise to a 4-1 over Carolina. Would this be the end of the slump? Not quite, but the Devils did win their next game against Florida. Patrik Elias and David Clarkson each scored on a shot, Brodeur pulled a Hedberg behind the net got a goal against, but the Devils held onto win 2-1. That was the game where Kovalchuk got hurt in the third period, a big blow for a team whose offense has been underwhelming at times. Not that Kovalchuk has been brilliant this season but his absence would loom large; it already did with an abjectly ugly five minute power play the Devils got later in that period.
The loss of #17 looked like it would lead to further struggles in Kanata, Ottawa on March 25. The Devils kicked off a three game road trip against the Senators and the Sens nearly skated the Devils right off the ice in the first ten minutes. A quick goal, two posts, and a team under siege made it look bleak. Especially as they went down a forward (Stephen Gionta), a defenseman (Bryce Salvador), and a mistake-happy Adam Larsson. But once the Devils got out of that first period, the action largely tilted against the home team. New Jersey dominated possession and the shot count, equalized, gave up a late second period goal because of some shameful defending, and equalized again. As much as they tried, there would be no result from regulation or overtime. Like the last Senators game, the resulting shootout would make it a loss as the Devils couldn't score on Ben Bishop. Therefore, they lost 3-2 in the shootout. The March 29 game against Tampa Bay saw the Devils score four goals out of 25 shots, including a power play goal and a shorthanded goal. Despite the production, the backend faltered. The team got largely Stamkos'd on the first and third goals, Volchenkov displayed shameful defending for Tampa Bay's second goal similar to what happened in Ottawa, and the Lightning tied it up (thanks to a killer pass from, who else, Stamkos) with 15 seconds left to play to force overtime. The game went into the shootout and it was another point dropped with a 5-4 loss. On the final game of the month, March 30 in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers, Steve Bernier was the scoring hero with two goals. He got one off a re-direction early and the other on a deflection on a power play in the third period. A goal off the skates of Shawn Matthias came in between in the first period. The team was up 2-1 late and like against Tampa Bay, the Panthers tied it up within the final minute. This game didn't go into a shootout when Dmitry Kulikov got open in front and scored to make it a 3-2 overtime loss. These were all games where the Devils could have used the additional attacking mindset for shooting attempts that Kovalchuk brings to the table. Or just a more attacking mindset in the last two games instead of trying to sit on leads.
So the month began with a three game winless streak and it ended with a three game winless streak. While the Devils at least got one point in each of those last three games, they leave a bitter taste with the fans because it could have been more. The last two could have and should have been regulation victories. That's why there's more outcry for that than earlier in the month when the Devils were consistently on the losing end without having a late lead to begin with. Had the Devils been able to hold on for a little longer in the last two games, I would be writing about a 7-5-3 record and noting how the Devils look to be back to winning ways. Instead, it's 5-5-5 and the Devils remain on top of the playoff bubble instead of pulling away from it. Given that the team has scored three or more goals on a goalie in only five games in March: the wins over Philly and Carolina, the 6-3 loss to Carolina where two came in garbage time, and the shootout losses to Buffalo and Tampa Bay, it's clear to me that the scoring continues to hold the Devils back, be it in the shootout, in overtime (remember: no goals), and in regulation as the team . That has to change - and fast.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Adam Henrique
|March 2013 - Adam Henrique||15||6||1||7||1||6||2||2||0||0||34||17.6|
With such mix in results and offensive production, it's difficult to identify any Devil who's been solidly good throughout the whole month. So let me highlight someone who's been at least productive as a whole: Adam Henrique. He scored six goals, more than any Devil within March, and he's done it with two in each situation. Per Behind the Net, he's got a high on-ice Corsi rate which is more impressive than it looks since he has the lowest offensive zone start percentage among current non-injured Devils forwards. And even in the games he doesn't register a point, he's been a positive player. His performance against Ottawa on March 25 was awesome and it was a shame a bouncing puck denied him an overtime winner right at the end. He's currently pointless in his last four games but if he keeps shooting and pushing forward, the points will surely come.
Now, there could be arguments made for others. Andrei Lokitonov had five very pretty goals, two assists, and has been a little more consistent Steve Bernier has been quite good as a bottom six player. But his three goals and three assists has been spread around and it's hard to state he's been the best over a month when it's arguable his linemate Ryan Carter has been similarly effective in the run of play. Andy Greene has emerged as the top minute defenseman on the Devils but he's had some poor outings among his other games where he's been fantastic. Patrik Elias scored five goals and two assists; but remains a possession machine but he's really been lost at times in some games this month. Ditto for David Clarkson, but with fewer points. As for the Devil of the Month, well, I'm not sorry.
March 2013 Devil of the Month: Ilya Kovalchuk
|March 2013 - Ilya Kovalchuk||12||3||7||10||-3||6||0||2||1||0||43||7.0|
In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. Kovalchuk was the only Devil to rack up double-digit points in March, he averaged well over three shots per game, he helped create four power play goals, he showed how much of a threat he can be shorthanded, and he was a difference maker on offense. He got hurt in the first game against Florida in March and has missed the last three games. He will miss more games and the Devils do miss him on offense - especially on the power play. No, he hasn't been the dominant scorer the Devils really could need. But he has been productive as he's been held pointless in only three games: the loss in Toronto, the shootout loss in Philly, and the game he got injured in. I'm sure it won't be a popular choice but, again, it's not easy to identify a standout player on a team that went 5-5-5 in March. So I'm going with the top scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for March 2013.
What's your feelings and thoughts about the Devils' games in March? Who would you say was the best Devil in the month of March and why? Will the Devils rise above in April? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team played in March in the comments. Thank you for reading.