A common lament of Devils fans these days, particularly after two blown multiple-goal leads in the past two weeks, is the team's inability to hold a lead once they actually secure it. Over the past couple seasons, it has seemed like games slip away from the Devils far to often. A lot of times, feelings like this can be a result of confirmation bias as we tend to remember the catastrophes much better than a ho-hum 3-1 victory. Is this the case for the Devils, though, or are we really suffering through more squandered opportunities than fans of other teams?
After the Detroit and Calgary games, many Devils fans were livid about the team's inability to hang onto a lead. The narrative that the Devils have built for themselves is that they cough up too many victories and are unable to nail down games when they have them in their grasp. This is the kind of thing that strikes me as susceptible to confirmation bias, so I wanted to dig into the numbers a bit and see what they said about this Devils team. Using the great team game finder from Hockey Reference, I pored over game summaries to tally up every game in which a team held a two-goal lead at some point and went on to lose the game. Since we don't have a huge sample to go on this season, games-wise, I included last season as well to see which teams have been plagued by blown leads over the past 14 months.
The results here are not exactly flattering for New Jersey. Only two teams have blown more two-goal leads and lost over the past couple seasons: the Stars and the Islanders, teams not exactly known for defensive prowess (though the Isles surrendered all 13(!) off their two-goal leads last year and with tweaks to the D and G positions, may have largely cured that ill). This is despite the Devils leading by two in the fourth-fewest number of games over that span (per WAR-on-Ice). By dividing the number of blown-lead losses by the games in which teams held a two-goal lead, I calculated the blown-2-goal lead % (B2GL% in the table) for the entire league. Here, the Devils land at second-worst, losing after building a two-goal lead 23.5% of the time. I don't think I have to inform anyone that losing about a quarter of the games which you manage to amass a 2-goal lead is a bad thing.
Now, like anything else, there are some caveats here. First, the Devils lose pretty much every shootout they participate in, so while other teams are pulling points out of the fire in the shootout sometimes, the Devils are facing an automatic loss once they advance beyond OT. And second, there is obviously a lot of variance in the numbers we are discussing, since we are ultimately only talking about a handful of games that end in blown-lead losses, there is likely lot of variance at play here. Still, even if you cut the number of 2-goal leads the Devils have squandered in half, they would be sitting in the middle of the pack in B2GL%. Even with a positive spin, the bottom line is that the Devils are letting far too many games slip through their fingers after they build a multiple-goal lead.
Another area fans have taken issue with the Devils is in blowing late leads. Sometimes it feels as if there is no point in time where the Devils are safe from a collapse, but how does this hold up against the stats? The NHL keeps records for teams when leading/trailing after each period, so we can first get an idea how the Devils have been late by looking at their record when leading after two periods. In 2013-14 the Devils had a .759 win% leading after 2 periods, good for 25th in the league, and they are sporting a .625 win% this season thus far, putting them 27th. Now this is again affected by poor shootout results, but it's another lead-holding category where the Devils are near the bottom of the league in terms of shutting the door.
When we approach the very late stages of the game, now we are talking about empty net situations, something the Devils have also seemed to struggle during, yielding a number of late equalizers to desperate teams. Checking the numbers over at WAR-on-Ice, it's more bad news for the Devils, with the Devils having the second-worst goals/60 against when the other team has an empty net. In something that continues to be a head-scratcher when juxtaposed against a mostly strong penalty kill, the Devils just can't keep pucks out of the net during the 6 on 5 situation. The Devils are one of only two teams (Arizona the other) to actually have a negative goal differential with the opposing net empty. This is another volatile stat, considering we're talking about goal totals in the single digits since the start of 2013-14, but it's just another piece of evidence that the Devils are failing to nail things down.
So why are the Devils having so many issues when they lead games? It's honestly hard to figure, looking at some of the stats. One thing I figured was that the Devils' sputtering offense sputters even more once they have the lead to an extent, that's true, as a team that doesn't shoot in the first place shoots even less once they're up. Good teams aren't blowing as many leads because two-goal advantages are more frequently becoming three or four-goal advantages for them. This is likely a portion of the Devils issue, but they score pretty much in line with expectations when they are leading.
No, the real issue seems to be keeping the puck out of the back of the net, where the Devils fall from 9th overall in goal prevention to 21st once they have the lead. But it's not like they're going into a shell and yielding 35 shots/60 once they get up a goal like many of the teams known for lackluster D seem to do. The fact is that their sv% is among the league's worst when they are leading. Part of that was with Brodeur, but they still have some issues with Schneider in net as well. Perhaps the increased time in their own end leads the team to make more catastrophic errors, but things just seem out of whack once they have the lead in a hockey game. The attempt numbers don't go too far awry, but they are worlds worse once they have the lead versus tied or trailing in terms of goal prevention. Part of me wants to preach patience, but we've seen enough leads evaporate over the past year to erode much of that confidence in any return to competence.
It's baffling that a team that was built to grind out wins loses it's head so often once they are up a goal. You understand that when you are a low-event team, you are going to have to live with some close or last-minute losses, but the Devils are getting pummeled once they have the lead. A team that is "built to win 2-1 games" should not be losing games where they have 2-0 or 3-1 leads this often. A team that goes from brick wall to Swiss cheese once the score is in their favor is beyond maddening. I don't know whether it's the goaltenders or the skaters or both are losing their focus when they go ahead, but it seems to be an issue either way. Maybe part of it is the randomness that comes with hockey, but the team has struggled to hold down leads for a long enough time that you begin to wonder if there is a flaw in their approach when they are up in games. Perhaps we seen a correction in sv% at some point and they will start nailing down the lead in these games, but for now, I understand why people might not be holding their breath.