This Devils season was one that started with much promise, but ended in bitter disappointment. A lot of misery has cloaked this fan base over the past couple months, but I'm here to try to make that frown turn upside down. It wasn't all bad, though the very crashy-and-burny 10-game April slide blotted out pretty much any positive takeaways from this year. I've got my turd-polishin' shoes on, so why don't you join me in looking at the not-so-terrible things to remember from this season.
Kovy's OT Winner vs. Washington
This was way back in the third game of the season. The Devils had won their first two games and headed into overtime in the next game versus the Caps. As John describes here, the Devils actually played a pretty sloppy game and coughed up a two-goal lead to allow it to go to overtime. That uglyness led to an exciting extra frame, though. The Devils got plenty of chances and whiffed on some glorious ones, but a nasty wrister from Kovalchuk off a nice pass from Zidlicky put this one in the books. It also features a classic Ilya Kovalchuk celebration, as he is wont to do when he scores big overtime goals. It's fun to remember a time when the Devils were winning ugly instead of losing games where they outshoot opponents 30-10.
Devils Sweep Home-and-Home Versus Pittsburgh
Once upon a time, the Devils sat atop the Eastern Conference this season. This was the weekend when the Devils staked what seemed to be, at the time, a legitimate claim to being the best team in the conference. They smacked down their biggest challenger (and eventual 1-seed) Pittsburgh in back-to-back games. The first game was kind of a wild one (recap here) and it featured lots and lots of penalties. The teams exchanged a goal a piece in the first two periods with the Devils unable to convert on a whole mess of power play opportunities. The Penguins kept committing penalties, though, and the Devils broke the tie in the third with two power play goals. This game featured goals from Stefan Matteau and Bobby Butler, which makes it feel like it was played about 100 years ago (both their only tally for the Devils).
The second half of the back-to-back was a real test as the Devils had to go into Consol Energy Center and beat a very good team again. The Devils came out flat in the first against a riled up Pens team, but were able to weather the storm and got a late period goal from Clarskon to take an somewhat undeserved 1-0 lead. The struck back big time in the period and pretty much blew the Penguins off the ice. Kovy got on the board and Clarkson chipped in another to make it 3-0. James Neal would get a PPG back in the third to make it somewhat interesting, but the Devils ended up cruising to the 3-1 victory in the end. Clarky looked like a world-beater, the Devils were in first, and everyone was pretty happy around these parts. If you got into a massive hang-gliding accident or something the following day and are unable to remember the two months that would follow this weekend, then I envy you.
Devils Cream the Flyers a Bunch of Times
Oh man, did the Devils put a hurting on the Flyers this season. Yes, the Flyers pretty much stunk, but oh man beating up on them is hard not to enjoy. The Devils took 9 out of a possible 10 points this year from the Second Rate Rivals and, save for one shootout loss, the Flyers were petty much the one team the Devils could consistently put up goals on. Granted, the Flyers had a pretty putrid defense and a mediocre goaltender, but that doesn't make beating them any less fun. Here are the highlights to my personal favorite, a 5-2 win to snap the first long losing skid of this season.
Marty Scores a Goal (sort of) Against the Canes
Like the Philly game highlighted above, this one was pretty much an oasis in a desert of misery for Devils fans. This one came at the hands of another team who didn't have such a fun season, the Carolina Hurricanes. In this one, Marty got credit for a goal off a sailed pass by Jordan Stall during a delayed penalty. It was hilarious and awesome, and definitely a bright spot in a second half that we'd otherwise like to forget.
Other Non-Terrible Takeaways
Reid Boucher and Others Make the Jump
Reid Boucher carved out a name for himself down in juniors this season by scoring 62 goals for the OHL Sarnia Sting, breaking a team record previously held by a guy you might have heard of, Steven Stamkos. He finished up with 94 points in 65 games altogether and is generating some excitement as a forward prospect in an organization which is otherwise thin up front. He may not be quite NHL ready for next season, as he will need to round out his game a bit, but the kid can certainly score. He signed an ELC, so he will make his way to Albany and maybe a tryout with the big squad next year.
Outside of Boucher, there are some other bright spots in the system, too. The team is pretty flushed with promising defensive talent, with Jon Merrill, Damon Severson, and Reece Scarlett all signing ELCs for next season to join other NHL hopefuls like Eric Gelinas, Brandon Burlon, and Alex Urbom in Albany. The likelihood that all of these guys pan out is negligible, but when you stack up this much talent, your odds of finding at least a couple strong NHL defenders certainly go up.
Lou Lamoriello is a man who has always liked to buy low on the trade market. If a team has painted themselves into a corner with a player and is in a position where they feel they have to move him, you can bet Lou is probably going to pick up the phone and make an inquiry. A few years ago, he got Kovalchuk from the Thrashers for the proverbial pu-pu-platter of players and picks. He initially got Bryce Salvador for Cam Freakin' Janssen.
This year, he spotted a situation over in Los Angeles where the Kings had no room on their current roster for promising prospect Andrei Loktionov. Loktionov was likely sick of being stashed in the minors and was probably none too pleased with the Kings leaving him off the Stanley Cup after he played 39 regular season and 2 playoff games for them last year. He was in the final year of his ELC and possibly mulling a return to Russia. With no leverage, Dean Lombardi could pry no more than a 5th rounder away from Lou when he came calling. Many LA Kings fans were distraught at the move, feeling that a top-level talent was given away for a negligible return. Upon arrival, Loktionov did not disappoint, stepping in an making an immediate impact. For a time, it seemed like he was the only Devil who possessed the ability to score. He slowed down a bit, finishing with 8 goals and 4 assists on his 28 game season, but it seems like a near certainty that the Devils will at least qualify him this off-season. His possession numbers are pretty good and he certainly looks talented enough to belong in this league. For a fifth rounder, he looks like a pretty big steal right now.
The Devils Might Actually Be a Pretty Good Team
I know I might get some pushback on this one, but it's pretty easy to make an argument that the Devils were a whole lot better this season than their record shows. Yes, ultimately this is a results-oriented business, but if you tell me this team will be as dominant a possession team next year as they were this year, I'm running out to the nearest sports book to slap down a hefty bet on the Devils making the playoffs in 2014.
Case in point: Look at this table tweeted out by @NHL_STATS. LOOK AT IT, DAMN YOU. Is that not the most freaking frustrating thing you've ever seen? Holy outlier, Batman (see also: Leafs). It's taking all of my effort to look at it right now without setting my laptop ablaze and hurling it out the window. The next 12 teams in shot differential all made the playoffs. They finished third in the league in FenClose% as well behind only LA and Chicago with a whole bunch more playoff squads lined up immediately behind them. No, shots don't mean everything, but the Devils so thoroughly controlled play this season that it's a borderline miracle that they were able to have crappy enough percentages to not get into the playoffs.
Did they "deserve" better? I don't know, it's not really an argument I care to have. They lost too many games to make the playoffs and that is the only result that counts. Are they better than their record says? I believe that 100%. For that reason, I think this team has a good chance to make noise next year with only some minor retooling and maybe acquiring a little more scoring depth. I think the system is a good one, and I think the players here, barring a mass exodus, are good enough to make that system work. So while this season is quite possibly the most frustrating one I've endured as a fan, a positive that I'm choosing to take away is that this team shouldn't be bad for long.
What about you? Any moments/developments that you enjoyed this season? Have you already deleted the entire thing from your memory banks? Use words to form sentences about your feelings below. Thanks for reading.