The month of February is always a key one for most hockey teams. No, it's not as important as March, where the schedule gets crammed with games and playoff dreams are realized or dashed. It is, however, the final month for teams to understand what their team is all about. It's usually the final month before the trade deadline, where teams can make late moves to either improve their current roster or start thinking about next season. How the team performs, who gets injured, what area becomes a point of strength or weakness, and so forth stand out in February and decisions get made accordingly.
The Devils had a great February. It ended poorly with three straight losses. Even with that, the team finished 8-4-1. They started off the month hot with five straight wins. After that was broken, they racked up three more. They took on two of the best teams in the Western Conference and while they only got one point between them, the Devils measured up well in terms of performance. The only real downer has to be the final two games. Even so, the Devils rose above the playoff bubble (save for Ottawa) and have been battling directly with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for position. For a team that didn't make the playoffs last season and has been behind the Pennsylvania teams for most of this season, fighting for second in the division speaks to the quality of this season's team.
We shall see if this month was their apex. With 17 games in 31 days coming up next, we'll see if the quality lasts after a grinder of a schedule. For now, let's take this leap year date to look back at what the team did in February and who were the top Devils players of the month.
The Games of February 2012
After a dramatic shootout win over the Rangers to end January, the Devils got to face Montreal for their first game in February. Believe it or not, the game ranked up there among the most physical games all season as Les Habs decided to bring a lot of beef and the refs decided to swallow their whistles. The game didn't start off well for the Devils with two goals allowed in the first 10 minutes. Carey Price allowed probably one of the softer goals of the season to Zach Parise to give them life; but Montreal was undeterred. In fact, they scored a shorthanded goal early in the second to make it 3-1. Fortunately for the Devils, they clawed their way back into the game bit by bit. David Clarkson scored a power play goal in the second to make it 3-2; Dainius Zubrus tipped a shot by Alexei Ponikarovsky to tie it up; and late in the game, Zach Parise buried a shanked/blocked shot by Ilya Kovalchuk to make it 4-3. An empty net goal sealed the game at 5-3 and the Devils' first game of the month turned out to be their biggest comeback win.
The stage was set on Saturday for the Devils to visit the hated Philadelphia Flyers. The Devils were magnificent in the first two periods, putting six pucks past Sergei Bobrovsky. The power play was hot, the Devils were beating on the Flyers to seemingly every puck, and everything looked like it was going to be a blowout win for the Devils. Then the third period started and the Devils faithful were greeted with a big scare. The Flyers dominated the third 22-1 in shots and actually scored four goals to make it a game. They nearly got a fifth, they thankfully didn't, and so the Devils had to escape with a 6-4 win. Fortunately, the next day the Devils came up better against Pittsburgh. The Devils went up early, maintained the lead, and actually played a decent third period. It was a solid game all around. Ilya Kovalchuk set up one of the prettiest goals Anton Volchenkov will ever score, and the team chased Marc-Andre Fleury out of the net in the 5-2 win. The Devils visited MSG for the first time two nights later to face the Rangers. David Clarkson scored an early power play goal and Martin Brodeur ruled the night. Not having learned their lesson in Philly, the Devils looked good for the first two periods but completely sucked in the third. The Rangers out-shot them heavily 15-1 and with a one-goal lead, Brodeur had to be perfect. He absolutely was, all the way to when he got bowled over by Marian Gaborik in the final play of the game. Brodeur earned his first shutout of the season the hard way in a 1-0 victory over Our Hated Rivals. The win was the team's fifth straight and while they weren't perfect performances, the results alone were enough for Devils fans to feel good.
The good times had to stop eventually and it began with a game against St. Louis. The Blues were (and are) one of the top teams in the West and put up a strong effort in New Jersey. Both teams had leads at one point which were equalized quickly; and the only one that lasted - Patrik Elias' goal midway through the second that chased Jaroslav Halak - got answered off a deflection on a floating puck by Patrik Berglund. As far as third period equalizers goal, it wasn't that deflating. The only disappointing part of the Devils' performance was the shootout, resulting in a 4-3 SO loss. The next game against Florida was a bit more disappointing. The Devils looked great early on, Steve Bernier scored his first goal for the New Jersey Devils, and they out-shot the Panthers. Well, the Panthers responded with a PPG and then later on in the second period, a defensive gaffe left Kris Versteeg open to score. The Devils never really recovered because their offense just went flat, as just getting shots on net became a struggle. The Panthers held the Devils back and sealed off the game with an empty net goal. The Devils lost 3-1, their first regulation loss of the month and the end of a 6 game stretch within the months' first 11 days.
Valentine's Day proved to be a lovely night for a bounce-back performance by the Devils. In Buffalo, two Devils were absolute standouts. The first was Martin Brodeur, who robbed the Sabres early to deny them an early lead. Brodeur straight-up stopped several different Sabres and came up with the puck in all kinds of situations: open shots, rebounds, shots through screens, and so forth. The only time he was beaten, it was from an error by Dainius Zubrus, who put the puck over Brodeur's shoulder. It was all good because Ilya Kovalchuk was dominating Sabres like there was no tomorrow. He scored the game's first goal, got a secondary assist on Petr Sykora's go-ahead power play goal, an even strength goal off a rush led by Adam Henrique, and hard-earned empty net goal. Kovalchuk had 18 attempts, 7 shots on goal, and his first hat trick as a Devil in the team's 4-1 win over Buffalo. In retrospect, this was likely the most decisive win of the month - though one could argue
The team got a tougher challenge at home when they hosted the Anaheim Ducks. Like the Devils of last season, Anaheim was surging and playing far better than their record indicated. The Ducks were superior in their puck movement and they turned it into a lot of shots on net - 38 to be precise. Martin Brodeur had to play as well as he did at MSG earlier this month. I lost count at the number of big, impressive stops he had. While Adam Henrique and Alexei Ponikarovsky got goals to put the team early, the Ducks' attack eventually had to get one and they did when Corey Perry followed up on a rebound Brodeur had no chance on. The Devils didn't sit on the third period lead but they coughed it up when all five skaters were defending four Ducks in their end of the rink. The fifth Duck, Sheldon Brookbank, got the puck and hammered a perfect shot past Brodeur for a late equalizer. It felt like a punch to the stomach, though in retrospect, the Devils not named Brodeur didn't really deserve a point. The Ducks were just that good. A kicked in goal by Ryan Getzlaf was ruled out in overtime, and the Devils did steal the win in the shootout for a 3-2 result. Given how the Ducks just sliced through the Devils' defense, there were some concerns. Would there be doubts about how the team would play?
On Sunday against Montreal, the answer was a resounding no. The Devils played an absolutely solid game in Montreal. The team started off strong and Parise deflected a Kovalchuk shot late in the first to make it 1-0. An Elias shot from distance hit Clarkson's elbow and the deflection fooled Price to make it 2-0 in the dying seconds of the second period. While the Canadiens did get on the board early in the third, Matt Taormina fired an impressive shot in between two bodies that not only got in the net but smashed the goal camera lens inside the net. In between, Martin Brodeur continued to own Montreal on 21 saves and the Devils had a picked up well-earned 3-1 win. The Toronto game two nights later brought back some old concerns. The Devils started off well against Toronto and took a 2-0 lead with the help of Jonas Gustasvsson keeping his legs open on the later goal. The Maple Leafs battled back into the game with two goals, but the Devils took a late second period lead when Ponikarovsky caught Gustavsson's legs open again. While the two teams were nearly even in shots, the Devils blew another third period lead. In the final minute of the game, a bad bounce found the end of Phil Kessel's stick for the late equalizer. Toronto nearly came back, but they hit the post on a shot in OT that led to Mark Fayne firing an unimpressive shot towards the net. It bounced and beat Gustavsson for a 4-3 OT win. That stroke of luck got the Devils a fourth straight win.
However, as with about two weeks earlier, it would not last on February 24. The Devils hosted another impressive Western Conference team in Vancouver. Before the game, the Devils had a ceremony for long time play-by-play announcer and legendary broadcaster Doc Emrick. The ceremony was quite good and it was great hearing Doc again. The game itself was quite good. The Devils had their struggles on faceoffs and made some strange decisions on offense. Nevertheless, Vancouver put up two goals and while the Devils got one, the Canucks' goaltender Cory Schneider was too hot to defeat. The Devils fell 2-1 in a game where their effort was quite good. As it turned out, it would be the last good effort of the month. Two days later, the Devils hosted Tampa Bay. The Devils' performance left something to be desired. Martin St. Louis torched them when he attacked as he picked up a hat trick and set up Matt Gilroy's goal. Making matters worse was that the Gilroy goal came right after Petr Sykora tied it up. Zach Parise gave the team a lifeline with a late power play goal, but the Devils put up too little, too late in a 4-3 loss. Finally, the month ended with the team's most frustrating performance. At the Rangers' rink, the Devils and Rangers literally battled hard at one another. Unfortunately, the Rangers scored first and the Devils proceeded to put up a mere 10-11 shots in the remaining 43 minutes. Unsurprisingly, they did not score. Yes, the Devils held the Rangers to only 14 shots on Brodeur; but the constant passing up of shooting opportunities all but guaranteed a shutout loss. And so February ended with a 2-0 defeat to Our Hated Rivals.
Overall Thoughts on the Month
As ugly as the last two games may have been, there's still a lot to like about what the Devils did in February. Still without Travis Zajac and Henrik Tallinder, the team got plenty of solid results. Despite the three game losing streak that ended the month, the Devils still have a 95.2% of making the playoffs according to Sports Club Stats as of February 28. Their 8 wins have helped a lot. They hung with the Blues and Canucks, split games against the Rangers, and got wins over the Pennsylvania teams. The Devils even came close to averaging 3 goals per game, ending up one shy of the average at 38 total goals scored. Most of all, the Devils got most of these results in regulation. They only went beyond regulation three times and to the shootout twice where they lost to St. Louis, beat Anaheim.
That said, it's quite also quite clear that generating shots on net can be a challenge on some nights. The Devils set a season-low for shots in a game with 13 against the Rangers on February 27. They only got more than 30 shots on net in four games this month. It's also quite clear that the third period remains an issue at times. The Devils played with fire against the Flyers and the first Rangers game. They sagged in the games against Tampa Bay, Florida, and the second one against the Rangers; all situations when they needed goals. There were a few games where the Devils weren't terrible in the third but still allowed a crucial goal late like in the games against St. Louis, Anaheim, and Toronto. These issues persist now and they're likely going to continue into March. (I know about the home record was 3-3-1, I'm just hoping that changes. Also: 5-1 on the road is awesome.)
Lastly, I've focused a lot of this review on the games because that's mostly what the month was about. Adam Henrique came back from a groin problem in the Pittsburgh game. Adam Larsson did get a bone bruise after a hard (and clean) hit by P.K. Subban in the first Montreal game this month; he returned against Tampa Bay. That was good to see after witnessing Matt Taormina and Kurtis Foster as a pairing with a smattering of minutes from Peter Harrold. Larsson still has a little rust to get off, though I think he'll be OK going forward. Ryan Carter got hurt in that game too; he returned a game earlier than Larsson - against Vancouver. He showed some good hustle on a fourth line that continues to be a collection of warm bodies on the roster. Other than that, the team's been mostly stable. The Devils did make one trade before the deadline. They moved Kurtis Foster, Nick Palmieri, Stephane Veilleux, a conditional third round pick in 2013, and Washington's second round pick in 2012 for defenseman Marek Zidlicky. Zidlicky played all of two games and no practices with the team, so judgement on his play should be withheld for a little bit until he gets settled. My hope is that he'll be an improvement over Foster, who was a part of the trade and possibly a big reason why there was a trade at all. He'll get plenty of time in the coming month to see if that will be true or not.
Another positive from February was that quite a few players contributed to the team's success. Alexei Ponikarovsky has been a revelation on the third line with 4 goals and 6 assists. If I had one, I'd name him the honorable mention for the honorable mention for Devil of the Month. I really liked what Ponikarovsky has brought to the table. Zach Parise actually led the team in shots on goal with 53 and put up 7 goals. The captain definitely stepped up over the whole month. David Clarkson has continued his torrid goal scoring pace with 7 goals in February as well; that's been big at times. Patrik Elias continues to be a playmaker with 1 goal, 10 assists, and now leads my personal "Shoot the Puck More" list with just 16 shots in 13 games. However, two players have truly stood out from the rest in February 2012.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Martin Brodeur
|February 2012 - Martin Brodeur
Martin Brodeur was simply sensational this month. His numbers still look quite good despite taking some ugly hits in the Tampa Bay game (12-for-16 on saves) and the second Rangers game (13-for-14). Even in those two games, only one of those five goals against really should have been stopped by him. In fact, I don't think you would need all five fingers on one hand to count the number of soft goals against Brodeur. Even if you did, the most harsh of critics would have to give Brodeur respect for his performances in this month. He was supreme in his shutout win over the Rangers; the main reason why the Devils won that game. He was also the main reason why the Devils got a result at all against Anaheim, as he bailed out his teammates over and over. He was phenomenal against Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and in the second game against Montreal. Brodeur was a big reason why the Devils went 8-4-1 in February and he wasn't the reason for the 4 losses either. Let's hope his good performances continue through March and April.
February 2012 Devil of the Month: Ilya Kovalchuk
|Feb. 2012 - Ilya Kovalchuk
After two straight honorable mentions, I'm stating that Kovalchuk was the best Devil in this past month. Even in games where the Devils struggled to go forward, Kovalchuk would end up attempting a significant number of shots. OK, his shot selection sometimes ended with more blocks and misses; but the point is that he's always trying to get something going on offense. On a team that is among the least prolific in getting shots on net, that has been really helpful. That has been really successful in February as he helped get a lot of players going on offense.
Kovalchuk had 14 assists. Yes, 14. He had more assists than any other Devil skater had points in February. This month alone should kill any notion that Kovalchuk is a selfish, puck-hogging, me-first kind of player. Kovalchuk definitely attempted a lot of shots, but he was correct more often than not when he decide to pass the puck. He found numerous teammates in positions to finish the play, be it at even strength (7 assists) or special teams (6 on the power play, 1 shorthanded). It speaks to the player's excellent vision and passing skills. On top of that, Kovalchuk scored 5 goals (and 1 in the shootout) including his first hat trick as a Devil against Buffalo and the first hat trick for any Devil in this season. It would have been great if he scored more. His low shooting percentage suggests he could be due for more goals soon. After a 19 point month, that's a thought Devils fans should get giddy thinking about.
Regardless, Kovalchuk became the team leader in scoring ahead of Elias and - most of all - he had some direct role in half of all of the Devils goals scored in February. That is simply fantastic. That is enough for me to name Ilya Kovalchuk as the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for February 2012.
#17 / Right Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 15, 1983
13 GP - 5 G - 14 A - 19 Pts. - 51 SOG - 9.8 S%
February 2012 ILWT Devil of the Month
After reading and reminiscing, how do you feel about the Devils' performance in February? Are you pleased with a record of 8-4-1 after this past month? Does the last three games - all losses - overshadow the 8-1-1 run had prior to the current losing streak? What are you expecting from the team in March based on what you've seen in February? How can the Devils improve - and will they actually do it? What do you think of my choices for the Devil of the Month and the honorable mention? If you agreed with them, why? If you do not agree with either choice, who would you have named, and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team did in February in the comments. Thank you for reading and please catch your breath. Starting tomorrow, the first of 17 games in 31 days will begin. It's going to get real interesting, real fast.