Today begins a new year and the second half of the season. With their final game of the month on the last possible day in December, the New Jersey Devils have now played 41 games. The points still count the same but urgency will only increase as time really starts to tick off the calendar. The Devils currently have a record of 17-16-8 for 42 points. In most other seasons, that's not a good pace for making it into the top eight in the Eastern Conference to make the playoffs. Thankfully, re-alignment has changed the prerequisites for making the post season and all the Devils need to do is finish in the top three in the Metropolitan Division. Something entirely attainable at the moment.
It could have been much better of a situation, though. They're currently fourth in the division and only three points behind second place Washington. Had they been better in December, then they could be further up in the standings. Even if they won some shootouts, something they have yet to do this season. Their record for the month was 6-5-3. It was good enough to get a bit above "NHL .500" but it's still not all that great. For every big win, there was seemingly a big loss. At least they got points in nine games.
The Month That Was
Perspective is necessary when looking back at the most recent month of games. A record of 6-5-3 looks much better considering how the first half of the month went. The Devils earned a record of 2-4-1 and one of those wins was an overtime win against a divisional opponent, a non-ideal result. Beginning that frustrating first half of only five points out of a potential fourteen were two games against Montreal. The Devils played great in Montreal but still managed to lose 3-2 to the Canadiens. They controlled play but the bounces went against them in what was reminiscent of so many games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Back at the Rock two days later, the Devils played great again only for Montreal to tie it up in the last minute on a deflection. The Canadiens held on to force a shootout. Reid Boucher scored the first - and so far only - shootout goal but Montreal scored two to take that one 4-3. At least the Devils were playing well in those games. Their third game of the month was absolutely dreadful. They hosted Detroit and were just skating in mud all night long. The Red Wings won 3-1 while the Devils struggled to get a mere twelve shots on net. I called it the "New Worst Game of the Season" and I still stand by it. On the very next night, the Devils had to head back into Rangerstown to play Our Hated Rivals. The effort was far, far better. They actually managed to shoot and attack and score some goals. A last-minute power play goal on a scrum forced overtime, but the Devils avoided dread when Eric Gelinas hit the back of the net with The Truth. The Devils won their first of the month 4-3 over the Rangers, Overtime helped give Our Hated Rivals a point, which isn't good. At the time, the win was necessary just to avoid a long losing streak.
It was also necessary as it took a full seven days before the next one. It should not have come to that. On December 10, the Devils visited Columbus and took it to them early. They scored on the first shot of the game and pinned the Blue Jackets back quite a bit. They were up 3-1 early in the second and then the Blue Jackets rang up four straight goals. Martin Brodeur was terrible, the Devils looked stunned, and while they scrambled for an equalizer, the Blue Jackets took it late off a re-direction off a skate. The Devils choked a 3-1 lead to lose 5-4 in regulation. Three nights later, the Devils went into Pittsburgh and filled their pants, so to speak, in the first period. Cory Schneider was terrible, the Devils looked like AHLers going up against an all-star team, and the Pens finished the first up only 3-0. New Jersey then figured out a response. They scored two quick goals in the second and just pounded the Pens for the remainder of the game, looking for that third. Alas, the Devils did everything but score no thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury. So the valiant comeback effort, as great as it was to watch, couldn't overcome the early deficit and the team lost 3-2. As good as performances are, results are needed. They thankfully got one on Saturday against Tampa Bay at the Rock. That night, Brodeur was great, the team wasn't so but they found ways to score three goals. The Devils won 3-0 to avoid another little losing streak.
For whatever reason, the second half of the month went far better. Maybe it was getting a win in a game where they weren't necessarily the better team. Maybe it was some good fortune. Regardless, the Devils would go on a 4-1-2 run to finish December. It started off with a decisive victory against Ottawa on December 17. Both Stephen Gionta and Reid Boucher would score their first of the season, and in Boucher's case, his NHL career. The Devils went up against a team similar to them in the overall standings and made them look bad in a 5-2 win. Two days later, the Devils hosted Anaheim, who were on a ridiculous hot streak. It wasn't the prettiest of games but the Devils did manage to get something out of the game thanks to a brilliant pass from Jaromir Jagr to Andy Greene to tie it up late. The Ducks would prevail in overtime but taking a point in a 3-2 loss from a hot Western Conference team isn't so bad. The week would end successfully in Washington but it was crazy and doubtful. The Devils wrecked the Capitals for fifty minutes out of sixty, but had to make up a 3-1 deficit after two periods largely because Brodeur was terrible. Thankfully, the Capitals defense was far worse and the Devils forced overtime at 4-4. The fortunate rebound bounced off Greene's stick and into the net. That made it a 5-4 overtime win, a 2-0-1 week, and plenty of relieved Devils fans.
The good times would be shortlived. On Christmas Eve's Eve, the Devils visited Chicago. I consider Chicago to be the best team in the league and the Devils learned the hard way exactly what that means. The Blackhawks made the Devils look like, well, the Capitals from the prior Saturday. Schneider was bad, the skaters were bad, and the 5-2 final score could have been far worse. It wasn't as bad as the Detroit game since it was a case of Chicago taking the Devils to school as opposed to the Devils playing like they wished they stayed in bed. The month's final back-to-back against Columbus and the New York Islanders grew in importance. The performances, well, did not belie the results. That Friday against Columbus, Brodeur showed up but the rest of the team struggled. They managed to tie it up when Adam Henrique scored his first in a while off a rebound. Travis Zajac nearly stole it, but the game was largely in control by Columbus. The Devils dragged it to a shootout, where the usual result happened. The Devils lost that one 2-1; they got a point they did not deserve. On Saturday, the Devils did play a better game against the Isles. They got up early, and while the Isles roared in the third, the Devils would ultimately match their efforts. Granted, it required a Marek Zidlicky shot to go off Zajac's shoulder but in a 1-1 game, one just asks if and when, not necessarily how. That goal held up as the winner in a 2-1 game that perhaps should've been better. Given the prior two games, one cannot complain. The last game of the month also ended 2-1 in favor of New Jersey, but it went much better. The Devils hosted the Penguins for an afternoon game on New Year's Eve. Henrique scored early, Michael Ryder added to it, and Brodeur stopped all but a killer one-timer. The Devils carried most of the play and the score could have been much larger than 2-1. Either way, it was good enough for a win to make the monthly record look a little bit better. Plus, beating the best team in the East is always a high point.
Over the month, the Devils did enjoy a number of comebacks. Damien Brunner, Michael Ryder, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique all found the net at multiple points after going on long goalless streaks. Brunner's return to form would be fantastic for a team that could always use more offense. However, he hurt his knee in the Anaheim game and will be out for at least four weeks. Ryane Clowe and Bryce Salvador also returned to the lineup by the end of the month. Both are holding up well, though it remains to be seen as to how well they'll contribute. There are a number of minor injuries but in terms of longer absences, only Adam Larsson, Peter Harrold, and Ryan Carter missed the entire month. We can say the team is getting healthier. Patrik Elias did hurt his shoulder in the last game against Pittsburgh, but Tom Gulitti reported today that it is not serious and any layoff may be short. That's good as a healthier team is going to be in a better spot to make some noise than a squad missing players.
At this point, here's what we know about the Devils. They are a fantastic possession team. Their Fenwick percentage in close-score 5-on-5 situations ranks seventh in the league at 52.8% according to Extra Skater. Short of something horrible happening, that means they'll likely remain a good possession team. That's important because the second half of the season includes more games below them in that regard. What's more is that their shooting percentage at even strength has been really good. They jumped to 8.1%, which is just about the top third in the league. Unfortunately, the Devils still don't take a lot of shots. Their shooting rate is the lowest in the league at even strength and the second lowest in the league on the power play. They are still stingy in terms of shots allowed at even strength and on the penalty kill. Both suggest that the PK should remain pretty good and the PP should remain worse than their conversion rate implies. In net, Brodeur and Schneider have been inconsistent in December and so both are below average in their even strength and overall save percentages. They could rebound, and I hope they do. But as the team doesn't score a lot, the spotlight on continue to shine on them for better or for harsher.
Ultimately, the Devils could be primed to go on some runs and really break away from the Metropolitan. Or they could continue to go back-and-forth with results as they did in December, with fans like us hoping the division remains a mess in the standings. Hopefully, January will bring a better monthly record than the 6-5-3 the team earned in December.
Devil of the Month
There were plenty of good performances within the month. Elias managed to put up double digits in points with two goals and nine assists despite a rotating cast of linemates. Ryder really got hot with seven goals and three assists. If both can continue to produce, then the Devils will be far better off for it. However, I always look for excellence throughout the month. In my opinion, only two Devils can really claim consistent goodness. They're two Devils I had to decide between last month (out of three, but Brodeur's definitely not being considered here): Andy Greene and Jaromir Jagr.
I suppose it depends on which impressed you more. If you think big-minute, oft-unheralded, and consistently good defensive play is supreme, then you loved Greene this month. He wasn't as productive with three goals and four assists compared to November, but they were important points. The proof is in the possession and when Greene was on the ice at even strength last month, the puck was constantly going forward. According to his game log at Extra Skater, he only had three games with a Corsi percentage less than 50%. Even in those games, the only one that really hurt was the Chicago game where the whole team stunk. But look at the others. For example, while he didn't get a point in the two games against Pittsburgh, the high attempt differential supports those who saw those games and wondered why he's not going to Sochi. It suggests that he's doing plenty of the hard work and succeeding. Throw in the fact that he was also playing big minutes on the penalty kill while Salvador and Anton Volchenkov were unavailable, and he's had a fantastic month in his own end. The rookies may get more appeal, Zidlicky will garner both good and bad attention, but Greene's been a boss in December and throughout the first half of the season.
However, and I'm amazed I'm typing this, I have to give an edge to the other one: Jagr. I honestly didn't think signing Jagr was all that great of an idea way back in the summer. I did not expect him to hold up for long periods of time. I did not expect him to contribute all that much. I thought he was more of a "panic" signing after a certain Russian dumped this team for more cash in an inferior league. Now, he's got 34 points in 41 games, he's on pace for cracking 60 points, and I'm certainly not going to bet against him. Jagr again led the Devils in scoring in December with two goals and ten assists. Like Greene, he was dominant in 5-on-5 play and was negative in attempt differential in only three games. And other of that Chicago game - the only game Jagr was held shotless - Jagr wasn't below by much and managed to not only get assists in both games but make a defender look helpless in the process. Jagr has the highest Corsi percentage on the team (among regulars) right now at 57.1% according to Extra Skater. He is playing with very good players, but he is also just as much of a reason as to why that line regularly beats up on opponents. Even when he's not scoring, he's often battling for pucks, protecting it along the perimeter, and making plays that keep the possession going if not set up a great chance. Jagr has consistently made a mark in every game he's played in December (Chicago excepted), he's been the most productive player, and he's been an Pierre McGuire-esque monster in terms of possession. I honestly never expected this out of him and now I hope to continue to be proven wrong. For the third straight month (is this the first time I've done this?), I claim Jaromir Jagr as the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for December 2013. Now watch him take Ryan McDonagh to school.
While the Devils have come a long way since their horrid, winless start of the season, it's hard to really describe a 6-5-3 month as good. What would you describe it as? What do you think was their biggest win? What was their biggest loss? Does anything out of this month make you think this team will do better or worse as they head into the new year and second half of the season? Who do you think was the most outstanding player in the month of December for the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the past month in the comments. Thank you for reading.