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The New Jersey Devils: February 2010 in Review

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If January was a disappointing month for the New Jersey Devils, then the shortened February was just poor.  Out of 7 games, the New Jersey Devils won only twice - and one of those was a miraculous third period comeback. Out of a possible 14 points, the Devils only earned 5 points with a record of 2-4-1.  The slump that began in mid-January did not end, it only continued.

Not that the team just let it happen.  Lou Lamoriello pulled off a huge trade on the evening February 4 sending defenseman Johnny Oduya, winger Niclas Bergfors, prospect center Patrice Cormier, a first round pick, and a second round pick to the Atlanta Thrashers for elite scoring winger Ilya Kovalchuk, defenseman Anssi Salmela, and a second round pick.  At the time of the deal, I felt the Devils got the better of the deal and I still think the Devils came out better for it.   Yet, the addition of a winger like Kovalchuk did not produce immediate results as the offense continues to be inconsistent, especially on the power play.

The Devils got a little healthier as Patrik Elias returned to the lineup from a concussion on February 6.  While his excellent vision and playmaking skills are welcomed back, his return alone did not inspire the Devils snap out of it on offense.  Would the return of David Clarkson and Paul Martin from injury really the ones to inspire the team?  The only other injury of note (sorry, Mr. Leblond) that took place was Anssi Salmela being knocked out of the February 8 game against Philadelphia by a blindside, late hit by Jeff Carter; though Salmela returned on February 13 for the Carolina game.

Of course, with an inconsistent offense, that places further pressure on the defense - especially when the offense can't build. A defense that's prone to making a few big mistakes a night, leaving opposition forwards ready and able to screen Martin Brodeur, set up in the slot for deflections, and set up on Brodeur's flank.   Yes, Brodeur's given up a lot of goals; but the majority of them wouldn't have happened with better play by both ends by the skaters.  Better play by the skaters would have prevented some awful second period performances.  Except for the Nashville game on February 12, the Devils have been outscored in the second period in every game this month.   Awful.

Overall, the Devils have won only 8 games since January 8 and they haven't won two consecutive games since January 12.  Fans like myself are running out of reasons to hope things will be quickly different for New Jersey. The Devils, like the rest of the NHL, are on a two week break and will place their next game in March.  Will it help?  Hopefully. 

If not, the fans are left justifiably asking about the team's focus and heart that was ever-present in the 2009 part of this season.  That directly ties into the team's leadership and coaches.  Will there be a change there? Will there be another trade, possibly for a defender? Will the team being finally healthy be enough to get it sorted out?  At this point, I think most Devils fans just want some wins more than anything else - as this month was inarguably bad for New Jersey.

February in Review

In retrospect, I feel this month, if nothing else, was educational.  Consider:

  • The Toronto Maple Leafs made a big deal prior to the game against the Devils on February 2, acquiring Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastian Giguere.  The Leafs, in Toronto, played with energy and as if they were making a point.  The Devils were coming off a heartbreaking choke-job against LA on January 31.  With Yann Danis starting, the theory that the team may play better in front of the backup was quickly proven incorrect.   The Devils didn't show up at all for the game, didn't really challenge the Leafs, and were soundly beaten all over the ice to a final 3-0 score.
  • The next game would be against Toronto, at the Rock this time, and it would have two brand new Devils in the lineup: Ilya Kovalchuk and Anssi Salmela.  How did things go? Well, the Leafs outplayed the Devils for a majority of the game. We can quibble over whether it was for the whole game up until the final 3-4 minutes or whether it was from the start of a second period through the final 3-4 minutes. The fans, and the Leafs, learned that hockey is a 60 minute game as Dean McAmmond scored a lifeline of a goal late; Travis Zajac tied it up on a wicked one-timer on a power play; and Jay Pandolfo put home a rebound past Jonas Gustavsson in the game's dying seconds. The Devils won 4-3 despite a 3-1 deficit to start the third; they absolutely stole that game, their first of two wins this month.
  • The Devils would welcome the return of Patrik Elias against Our Hated Rivals at MSG.  Elias played well, setting up the Devils' only goal of the night, scored by Dainius Zubrus. While the game featured another second period meltdown and another reason to dislike Mike Mottau, the real star of the game was Henrik Lundqvist. The Devils kept pounding him with shots from all over the place, only for the Rangers' netminder to rob them over and over and over.  I feel the big takeaway is that an offense can only do so much against a hot goaltender.  I kept highlighting Lundqvist as the only reason why the Rangers won the game, 3-1, as an early goal or a few goals late would have changed the whole situation. Of all of the Devils losses in this month, this one stings the least for that reason despite it being against Our Hated Rivals. The effort was there, the energy was there, but Lundqvist's glove was omnipresent.
  • The Devils went into Philadelphia on Monday, got a nice fluke of a power play goal, saw a beautiful shorthanded goal by Anssi Salmela scored before Jeff Carter drilled the back of his head with his shoulder (after the goal light went off), and then promptly did nothing with it. Despite getting 7 power plays, the Devils never really built on their two goal lead - not even challenging seriously for a third goal. This kept the door open for the Flyers, who battled back with a quickfire double late in the second period, and got an easy power play goal to win it in the third period.    This game taught the Devils fans the importance of building on a lead, actually pressing the issue if not scoring goals, to keep the opposition honest.  Instead, the Devils didn't, blew the lead, and suffered a punch to the gut with a 3-2 loss to Our Second Most Hated Rivals.
  • The Devils played the Flyers again on Wednesday in Newark during a snowstorm, which surely affected attendance.  While both teams didn't play well, it was almost a repeat of Monday's game in terms of results.  Devils score the first two, and then proceed to allow 3 unanswered. Sure, the Flyers answered one back in the first, got an equalizer in the second, and literally held on (the Devils offense showed up somewhat in the third period) until overtime to strike a shot through a screen to win it.  Yes, the Devils got a point, but the result was once again a blown lead for a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils fans learned that "those who do not remember history, are doomed to repeat it" is not just cliche, it can be a cold reality.
  • On Friday, the Devils played their last home game before the Olympic break against the Nashville Predators.  Amazingly, they played well for the most part of the game.  They looked strong early, looked strong late, and weren't totally bad in the second period.  Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first goal as a Devil and it was the game winner, breaking a 2-2 deadlock in the third period.  Zach Parise scored an intentional power play goal to add to that, and the Devils tacked on an empty net goal for a deserved 5-2 win over the Predators.  The offense showed up and made it easy for the rest of the Devils to do a good job. I feel we learned how important it is for a team to not get discouraged when a lead is given up (Nashville did equalize in the first, went ahead early in the second) and to keep moving the puck well while attacking, as it opened up great chances for the Devils.  More importantly, I think we learned how good it feels to see the Devils play well and win.
  • On Saturday, the Devils went into the Carolina Hurricanes, winners of their last four games.  After a slow start, the Hurricanes capitalized on power plays and kept rushing forward to attack due to their superior passing/puck movement and the Devils terrible passing/puck movement leading to possession going back to the home team.  Carolina picked apart the Devils for four straight goals, let up a bit, and didn't seem entirely concerned with a Devils team making a late effort at a comeback.  Honestly, with how the game went for New Jersey, they were only consolation goals; the Carolina Hurricanes earned their 5-2 win going into the break.  Fans learned the hard way that when the Devils struggle mightily with passing on offense, going into the offensive zone, and even the neutral zone, the game isn't going to go so well for New Jersey.  It certainly didn't, making a big difference as to why Carolina looked superior on the ice.

A lot of lessons for the Devils to learn. They aren't really a young team so it's not as if most of the team hasn't been in these situations before. That concerns me as to whether they were trying to solve these problems or not. Imagine if they didn't concede leads against Philadelphia or actually showed up at the start in the first Toronto game and the Carolina game?   Even if they lost those games, if the team was performing much better and just lost on a few breaks, then there wouldn't be all this cause for concern.

In the big picture, it's not all that bad, sure.  As user richer44 pointed out in this FanPost, even the Devils teams that went on to win Stanley Cups went through similar struggles at some point in the season.   Per this article by Rich Chere at NJ.com, the Devils are not far off from last season's pace.   That and the team's current position - first place in the Atlantic by a point - mitigate concerns.  If you told me that the Devils would be 37-21-3 at the break back in September, I would have said "Good."

Yet, the fact is that the Devils dropped a lot of points in this month, they literally limped into this break with a poor loss, and they're going to return with a road trip through San Jose (second best record in the NHL), Calgary (a team fighting for their playoff lives), and Edmonton (trap game).   There's not a lot to feel good about given how the Devils went 2-4-1 in February.  Which should surprise no one; this truly was a bad month for the Devils, plain and simple.

Devil of the Month

With how the Devils played for most of this month, it makes it difficult to really identify who did well.  Almost everyone has had a bad or nondescript game at some point.

I can't honestly name Martin Brodeur. Sure, on most of the goals there was little he could about them short of a miracle, but I can't reward his performance anymore than I can reward the defense with recognition.  Seriously, who on defense can honestly claim to have a good month?  Andy Greene had bad luck and provided little on offense. Anssi Salmela hasn't done much, even though he scored a sweet shorthanded goal.   Mike Mottau and Colin White aren't deserving of much praise for their February performances.  Mark Fraser didn't play significant enough minutes.  Bryce Salvador has been the steadiest in my opinion, but even he made a few errors that led to goals.

This leaves me back to the forward position.  Surprisingly, the forward with the most points in February was Jamie Langenbrunner.  There were only three games he got no points in, making him one of the more consistent producers for the Devils this month.  I know that's not much, but again, it was a bad month for New Jersey. For this and largely this reason alone, I have to give him the honorable mention for Devil of the Month.

Devil of the Month Honorable Mention:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
February 2009 - Jamie Langenbrunner 7 1 6 7 -1 0 0 0 0 18:58 24 4.2

Why I'm not naming him Devil of the Month outright has to do with his role.  He's the captain of the team and, well, look at the team's results and performances and tell me he's helping this team's focus and motivating them to play. A lot of the work a captain does is off the ice, not seen by the fans, and important in the locker room.  Yet, we're not seeing this translate into good work on the ice.  No, I don't want him stripped of the 'C,' I want him to get back to what he was doing back in October, November, and December.   I'd like to think most Devils fans would want to see that as well.

Now, there was a Devil that one can argue as having a good February. The only thing he didn't do was consistently shoot the puck on net, and he's a forward who could and should shoot more often.

The In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for February 2010, Travis Zajac.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
February 2009 - Travis Zajac 7 3 3 6 -2 0 1 0 0 20:54 10 30.0

Let's break it down: He only didn't get a point in only 2 games this month, and nearly matched Langenbrunner with points.  Only he's scored more.  Zajac had only one game this month where he didn't win more than 59% of his faceoffs, which is just impressive (the one game? Feb. 2nd against Toronto, only 44.4% won).   Again, the only mark against him are his low shots on goal - he really should shoot more.  Still, three goals ties him with Zach Parise in that mark; not to mention that his sole power play goal was an important (and well played) shot that made the win on February 5 possible. Defensively, his only error was coming off the ice on a 5-on-3 with the puck not in deep against Carolina, leading to Carolina's first power play goal of the second period.  Still, other than that, he's been solid. 

As a testament to how well he's been doing, I've noticed his excellent play twice now in naming him Devil of the Month: October 2009 and January 2010.  Hopefully, he continues the good work in March and April. Hopefully the rest of the team can follow his example at least.


Travis Zajac

#19 / Center / New Jersey Devils

6-2

200

May 13, 1985

February 2010 Devil of the Month

GP: 7, 3 G, 3 A, -2, 0 PIM, 10 SOG


Please leave your thoughts about how February 2010 went for the New Jersey Devils, the Devil of the Month, and anything related to that in the comments.