The New Jersey Devils have only played five games this season. Usually it's too early to comment on a team's performance. However, trends can begin to form which are either worthy of praise or cause for concern. The Devils certainly have given the fans something to fret over in their second full week of the 2013 season. They appear to be slow starters. Their play in the first period has left a lot to be desired. The Devils have only been hurt on the scoreboard in one of their five games, but it's a concern in that if they don't shape up then they'll be hurt more often.
It's one thing if it was a case of the Devils shaking off the rust in their first game or so. However, now that players are getting into form and teams have had some time to come together in games and practices, it may be signs of an actual problem. I've compiled some data from NHL.com for the the Devils' first period performance in each of their first five games to highlight the severity of the issue.
Legend: GF & GA stand for Goals For and Against; SF & SA stand for Shots For and Against; and CF & CA stand or Corsi events (shots, goals, misses, and blocks at even strength) For and Against. The links go to
|Date||Game||GF||GA||SF||SA||CF||CA||NJ Pen||Opp Pen|
The good news is that the Devils have only been damaged on the scoreboard in one game, their recent overtime loss to Montreal. The Devils did battle back from that poor start to get to overtime. They've outscored their opposition collectively so they haven't dropped points because of the first period. This speaks well of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg as the shots and Corsi counts indicate that they've been busy.
The bad news is that there is reason to believe the Devils have been slow starters. The Corsi does not lie. The large differentials in events in the first periods against Philly and Montreal are evidence of the Devils getting rolled. Score effect may have come into play in the Philly game as the Devils scored rather early. Yet, going down 5-14 in attempts suggests the team did very little good other than score a goal at the beginning and at the end of the period. That's because they really did little good in between goals. While the Devils were only out-attempted by four against Boston, they did allow 21 attempts against at evens. The Capitals game looks better in retrospect, but they still pulled out ahead thanks to having more effective shifts than the Devils. That goal came midway through the period and early on, the Caps generated more shots and events. Remember that the Corsi events are at evens, so those additional penalty kills aren't reflected in those numbers - though they did result in shots against, which were mostly even save for the one in Montreal.
Honestly, the last good first period the Devils had was against the Islanders in their season opener. That was a game fraught with turnovers where the Devils took advantage. Now that both teams have several games under their belts, that's not likely to repeat. There is some hope in that the Devils went into Boston and came out of that first period not too bad. Unlike the Montreal game, the Devils were in more control of the puck and didn't get out-attempted too badly at evens. It could be a sign of progress; that the Philly, Washington, and Montreal games were just a lull. The Devils will have to keep working at it to make it so.
So what should we be hoping that they do to improve their first period play? Improved positioning would be a good place to start. The team's defense isn't particularly fast but they get into bad spots when they're out of position. Getting beaten also forces players into fouling their opponent, which leads to penalties. The Devils have taken a few early minors in nearly all five of the first periods this season. Turnovers exacerbate that since there is less time to get recover their spot and make a play. The Devils were awful at this in Montreal. They were better in Boston. They could be better in general.
As that's established, the Devils need to improve their puck control in going forward so they can more chances on net. They're not highlight reel plays, but on-target passes into and in the neutral zone create the space for teams to get forward. A bad pass or one made to a covered player makes it difficult to keep going, which can end a potential attack before it begins. Ideally, they should be made such that the player can enter the zone while carrying the puck. Dump-and-changes will happen, but with more consistent stops, they won't be so necessary and so the opportunities for offense should increase. More successful passes and reads also mean fewer turnovers, which helps out the defense and doesn't help out the opposition.
Once there, they need to get more shots. I'm not saying the Devils need to bomb away the second they gain the zone. They just need to be more willing to shoot in general. I'm not just talking about Ilya Kovalchuk (although he does have 19 in five games); I'm talking about the whole team not named David Clarkson, who leads the Devils with 24 shots in five games. Clarkson never saw an open shot he didn't like to take, but it's a preferable decision than to force a low-percentage pass and potentially stop the offense. Only five Devils have ten or more shots on net after five games and three just cracked the mark: Patrik Elias, Marek Zidlicky, and Travis Zajac. They can all stand to fire it towards the net more too. I just want to see a little more selfishness in the short term; if someone has an open shot, then take it. Go hard to the middle or the net if there's no good passing option. In the long term, the Devils would be greatly helped to get another offensive winger, at least someone who can maintain possession. Both can help the Devils keep the play at the other team's end of the rink.
If that all sounds familiar, well, it should. Playing well in the first period is just like playing well in any other period. Trying to get the better of shooting attempts at evens and out-shooting the opposition in general is something all teams should always strive for. While the score does affect those strategies and mindsets as do match-ups, the goal remains to get the team in positions to succeed. That goal isn't always met, but the attempt should at least be present. For the Devils, that hasn't been there to some degree - either most of the first or large parts of it - in most of their games this season. So the coaches and the players need to figure out where the urgency is and how to turn it into on-ice performance more quickly. I'm sure everyone's aware how important games are, but they need to show it sooner. And when that's there, then the Devils can truly improve on the three aspects of the game I want to see them do better in. Again, the goal is to play better hockey. If they work on that and just get more aware that a good first period can lead to better and possibly easier second and third periods, then this issue will be lessened.
It may be too soon to say this is a big issue for the Devils in this 2013 season, but it's something we should want to see addressed before it becomes one and starts hurting their chances at getting points. While my advice is generic, what do you think the Devils need to do to improve their first period starts? Do you think it's even that big of an issue after their first five games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' first period performances so far this season in the comments. Thank you for reading.