This has been a strange season for the Devils. It was always going to be a little strage without Martin Brodeur in net, but there were a lot of projections for success. New additions to the offense, bringing back most of last seasons top ranked D corps, and giving Cory Schneider control of the net after his stellar 2013-14 campaign led to many predicting the Devils would return to the post season play. And yet, almost 30 games in, the Devils are 5th in the division and have yet to really find their game.
Their penalty kill is ranked 28th after being #1 last year.
They are giving up an average 30 shots a game – 22nd in the league. They averaged 25.5 last year – #1 in the league last year.
They just don’t look like the Devils. They aren’t consistent, they aren’t possessing the puck, they aren’t holding leads and for Devils fans, it’s strange.
Look at the last 5 games as an example. They’ve played 2 of arguably their best games – and lost. 2 of arguably their worst games – winning 1 and losing 1. And one decent game where they blew out a team who had won 5 straight. It’s just strange.
This 2-2-1 run began against the Metro-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils lost 3 forwards throughout the course of the game but played with a toughness that they hadn’t displayed this season. The much maligned penalty kill held the Penguins top ranked power play unit scoreless, they held a team averaging over 30 shots a game, to 23 and they outplayed a team that could have – probably should have – run over them. Even though they lost 1-0, the effort put forth by an undermanned team gave fans hope that the Devils had finally found themselves.
The Devils followed up that performance with a solid effort against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs had won 5 straight, the Devils had lost 5 straight and yet the Devils scored early and often, beating the Leafs 5-3. Role players scored goals while the stars were out injured, Schneider played a strong game and now there was hope that the Devils had really turned a corner.
Then the Washington Capitals came to town and the Devils laid an egg. A team that has been middle of the road and right near the Devils in the standings, came into The Rock and took it to New Jersey. The Devils gave up weak goals including a short handed goal and failed to capitalize on their own short handed opportunity (which led directly to a Caps PP goal). All the momentum and energy the team had built up went out the window and once again fans were left wondering which was the real Devils team.
Optimists would suggest the Capitals game was a fluke, and heading to division bottom-dweller Carolina would be an easy 2 points. Unfortunately the Hurricanes had different ideas. The Devils gave up 40 shots to the home team, and blocked another 33. That’s 73 shot attempts for a team who is 29th in the NHL in scoring (granted that may be why they only scored once on 73 attempts…). Schneider made key stops – never the highlight reel save – but lots and lots of stops gave his team a chance. The Devils mustered a measly 16 shots but managed to get 2 of them past Cam Ward for the victory. They were outshot 17-1 in the third period and spent the last 1:45 trapped in their zone unable to clear the puck or change lines. They had no business winning the game, but kept the strangeness going with another W.
Which brings us to tonights game. A rested Chicago team against a depleted Devils lineup that had to give everything they had to hold off the 2nd worst team in the NHL the previous night. Coach Pete DeBoer all but waived the white flag before the game even started, giving Keith Kinkaid his first NHL start against the 2nd best team in the league. The Devils had 5 Albany players in the lineup due to various injuries and other depletions (Kinkaid, Seth Helgeson, Mike Sislo, Reid Boucher, Peter Harrold). There was no reason to think this team had a chance – and yet strange strikes again. Even with the Devils being outshot, Kinkaid was solid in net and the Devils actually held two leads with goals from Jordin Tootoo and Stephen Gionta. While the end result was still a (shootout) loss, this was another performance leaving Devils fans optimistic. They held the Blackhawks scoreless on the power play, including a 4:00 PP during regulation and a full 2:00 4 v 3 in overtime. They had their chances and played a relatively solid defensive game against the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews.
So which is the real Devils team? The team who held their own against Pittsburgh and Chicago – or the team who was outshot 17-1 by the Hurricanes? And knowing that the latter is the only game of the three that they won, which team do you want?
There is plenty reason for hope in New Jersey. They have played an NHL leading 18 road games so far and will have a heavy home schedule over the next couple months. They should get healthier – Marty Havlat, and Jon Merrill are finally back, while Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Mike Cammalleri, Dainius Zubrus and Adam Larsson are hopefully not far off. They’ve received solid performances and scoring from role players like Tootoo, Gionta, and Steve Bernier. And Keith Kinkaid showed he is more than capable of playing in the NHL, hopefully allowing DeBoer to give Schneider more rest. And we’ve seen them play their best games against the top teams in the NHL. Plus, how much more strange can one team face?
Although the Penguins and Islanders have pulled away slightly, the Devils have not played themselves out of contention yet. If they can start putting together consistent efforts like they did against Pittsburgh, Chicago, and even Toronto, it’s not out of the question for this team to start reeling off wins. They have the system, the players and the history to still find the success many expected them to have this season. And if they don’t? You’d have to imagine it’s finally time for the likes of the 5 young defenseman (Merrill, Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson and now Helgeson), Boucher, Stefan Matteau, Kinkaid and the other young Devils to get their chance to bring success back to NJ. Stranger things have happened.