Once again, the New Jersey Devils end another month pretty much in the same place where they were before the month began. For about three months running, the Devils have managed a decent record to keep them in the mix in the Metropolitan Division. In January, the Devils finished with a record of 6-5-4. Over the season, they are now above "NHL .500" with a 23-21-12 record worth 58 points. They are sixth in the division but tied with fourth in points and only one point behind third place prior to the games on February 1st. It definitely wasn't a terrible month. But it's not entirely good if only because of what how much better off the Devils' record could have been. If this seems familiar, then it probably is given the December 2013 month in review.
The Month That Was
The start of January was not good for the Devils. They didn't win their first three games. They straight up lost their first two. The first game was probably expected. The Devils hosted Chicago, one of if not the best team in the NHL. The game went fairly well to start. The Devils kept it tied going into the third period. Then the team completely filled their collective pants in the first six minutes as the Blackhawks racked up three goals in six minutes. The Devils attempted a comeback, but the hole was too large. An empty netter sealed a 5-3 loss to Chicago. From one of the highest quality opponents in the league to one of the lowest, the Devils played in Buffalo on the following night. The performance was poor, namely undisciplined. Poor puck movement going forward, lax attention to detail, and five penalties. The Devils put out a losing performance, the record of the opponent didn't matter. And so that happened: a 2-1 regulation loss to Buffalo. Given the Devils' situation, dropping the first back-to-back set to open the month was not at all good.
The third game did not yield a win but at least netted them a point. Back at the Rock, the Devils hosted the Second Rate Rivals, Philadelphia Flyers on January 7. The Devils went up early and proceeded to pound the net with shots. Only very few went in. The team needed a last-minute desperation-PK-rush to score to tie it up and they did. Only they lost in OT because shortly after the Devils ended the game themselves, no one picked up the eventual goal scorer for Philly on the response. The Devils lost 3-2 in OT but the game did kick off what would be a six-game stretch where they would not lose in regulation.
January 9 saw the Devils win their first of the month. Consistent with many other games this season, it was a close final against Dallas. Cory Schneider played very well, the Devils got the first and only goal, and so the losing streak ended at three. The Devils won 1-0. The next game against Florida was similarly close. Schneider was similarly great. Only this game went into overtime and Marek Zidlicky fired a slapshot in with less than three seconds left on a faceoff. The nearly-last-second strike gave the Devils a 2-1 win. Yet, a hope for a three-game winning streak would be dashed in Toronto. As with plenty of Toronto games this season, the Devils piled on the attempts and shots as if there was no tomorrow. They just couldn't score more than the two that they did: a Ryane Clowe breakaway and a lovely shot by Adam Henrique. As with plenty of Toronto games this season, the game required more than sixty minutes and the overtime did not decide it. The Devils unsurprisingly did not win in the shootout, so it was a 3-2 SO loss.
The six-game run would continue until the end of their four game road trip. The shootout loss in Toronto was the first of the four. Finish and fortune favored the Devils in their second game in Montreal. Martin Brodeur got the start, gave up a bad goal, and then put in another performance that made the Montreal writers mutter to themselves. The Devils responded to the bad goal and managed to build on it. They put up three on the opposing goalie and Dainius Zubrus put in the first empty netter in what seemed like forever for a 4-1 win. Yes, a win by more than one goal. But the good times would not last long. The Devils went into Colorado and faced a storm of shots from their immensely talented wingers. Cory Schneider played out of his mind to get only beaten once in two terrible periods of play by the skaters. The third was better and the Devils would find an equalizer from Andrei Loktionov firing a shot that apparently went off Reid Boucher and in. Even then, Schneider had to be amazing. The Devils drug the game into overtime and then a shootout. Of course, the Devils did not win it so it was a 2-1 SO loss. The road trip ended with a thud in Phoenix. The Devils played poorly as a team to start, Martin Brodeur let in some goals he shouldn't have, and the team ended up in too deep of a hole to fight back from. They tried but only could cut Phoenix's lead to one in a 3-2 loss. It was the team's first regulation loss in six games; they went 3-0-3 in that run.
After the trip, the Devils got a few days off before hosting St. Louis on January 21. Winter storm Janus hammered the area with snow, wind, and freezing temperatures. Attendance was sparse. Those who were there got to see something rare from the Devils: a goal explosion. An actual, 100% real goal explosion. Bounces went the Devils' way, the power play was remarkably lethal, and whatever could go wrong did go wrong for the Blues. A very good Blues team, mind you. The Devils sent them packing in a 7-1 blowout. Perhaps the Devils could go on a run starting with such a productive game? Well, no. Despite a defensively weaker Washington team and without a certain #8, the Devils were limited in how many they could score and the Capitals put up a fairly even performance. Oh, the Devils tried but the Caps matched them shot-for-shot. Fortunately, Schneider was great again (notice a pattern?) and the Devils did get enough goals to win 2-1. It could have been 3-1 if it was not for a missed empty net, but a win is a win. And it was two wins in a row with a massively important game against Our Hated Rivals on Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
Massive failure would be the final result at Yankee Stadium. The Devils went up early 3-1 on national television, making the Rangers look out of sorts. But Brodeur gave up one of the most hideous goals he's given up all season and the Devils got ruined on the counter-attack in the second period. Brodeur was bad, the defense was bad, and the forwards were bad. It was just miserable as the Rangers flipped 3-1 after 15 minutes to 3-6 after 40 minutes. An iffy penalty shot call yielded a seventh goal against - against Schneider, who replaced Brodeur. The 7-3 loss was a huge disappointment of a defeat. As Mike wrote, it was likely the very end of any notion that Brodeur is a starting goaltender in New Jersey. Further evidence of that notion: Schneider started the last three games of the month.
After their "home" game in the Bronx, the Devils embarked on their final road trip into the Western Conference of the season. A week after a 7-1 blowout loss, the St. Louis Blues played a stronger game and ended up getting a win. Of course, that's easy to do when the Devils don't score. Schneider played well, but he can't score goals. The Devils lost 3-0, which included an empty netter for St. Louis. The Devils would manage to find the back of the net in their next game in Dallas. Dainius Zubrus scored for the first time in a while in the first period to put the Devils up early against the Stars. The power play was a success with Travis Zajac re-directing a Damien Brunner shot into the net, the penalty kill was supreme, and the game was a real grinder. Yet, the Devils couldn't get more than two and up 2-1, one bounce going awry can make the difference. That's what happened in the final minute as Dallas found a last-minute equalizer. But a power play in overtime was converted quickly to make it a 3-2 OT win for New Jersey. In the final game of the month, a more wide-open game was played in Nashville. Well, more open for Nashville. Schneider had to be more active, but he made an error that yielded a goal against. The opposing goaltender made an error later for Patrik Elias to get a fortunate equalizer and Jagr put a puck off a defender and in. Great bounces. And then with about 12 seconds left, Jagr gets a stick on the puck from a desperate long shot. The puck slides wide of the traffic to an open Predator, who puts in a gimmie of an equalizer. Unlike the Dallas game, Nashville would prevail in overtime in a 2-on-2 rush where the two defenders (Marek Zidlicky, Jon Merrill) could not pick up the shooter for the goal. So the Devils ended January with a 3-2 post-regulation loss, their fourth of the month.
Overall, overtime was even for the Devils: two wins and two losses. Shootouts remain a big gap with two more shootout losses. The Devils did put up a blowout (7-1 over St. Louis), got blown out (7-3 against Our Hated Rivals), won two games by more than one goal, and lost three games by more than one. The team was only shutout once and they shutout an opponent. They scored 35 goals and conceded 35 goals. Normally, this kind of month would be considered decent. Acceptable, perhaps. But it's not so good given that the Devils have yet to string together multiple wins in a row or have a truly positive month. A shootout win here, or a bounce there, or a better performance on another night, and the Devils could be sitting in second or third in the division right now. Instead, they remain in a fight that they have to hope remains a fight for the next two months. And then they have to win it. That's why 6-5-4 isn't as acceptable for the Devils as it would be for, say, a team that's better off or far worse off in the standings.
One of the biggest positives for the Devils this month was that the Devils finally got healthy at some point. There were a number of games without a significant injury, beginning with the first St. Louis game. While some players like Damien Brunner, really have to get going, so to speak. It's refreshing that the team actually has a full roster available. Unfortunately with Anton Volchenkov leaving the Nashville game early, that streak has ended.
Of course, with mostly everyone healthy, this has also led to a crowded roster. At forward, it hasn't been that big of a problem. With Peter DeBoer giving Reid Boucher, Mike Sislo, Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, and Andrei Loktionov top-six minutes shots to at least start games, the issue has been trying to find some additional offense. With Michael Ryder growing colder as the month went on, Zubrus scoring only two all month, and Damien Brunner not doing much outside of his return game against St. Louis, the team could use more production in terms of shots and goals. Sure, the Devils had a few 30+ shot games but, again, few goals scored in most games aside from the blowout in the blizzard.
The defense remains crowded. Adam Larsson, who is ineligible for waivers, remained in Albany as Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas, who are also ineligible for waivers. Since Andy Greene definitely will not be scratched; captains don't get scratched even though Bryce Salvador's play has been rather bad all month; and Marek Zidlicky is too much of a distributor to be scratched, there's really only three regular spots open. You may not like that reality, but it is what it is. Mark Fayne has been good so he's not going to sit. So there's really two spots. And those who can be sent down after playing poorly would be. Which is why Eric Gelinas was moved down after a month where his defensive miscues, misreads, and turnovers made him stand out more than his impressive shot. Personally, I'd rather have Larsson up over Gelinas and even Merrill. But until there's less than eight defenders in New Jersey, then I see why he's being stashed. It's not like his presence would have made the big difference elsewhere.
I still think a trade of sorts is coming to clear up the defense while addressing the offense to some degree, just before the Olympic break if I were to guess/hope. There has been one important change throughout the month. For those who've noticed, Cory Schneider not only played well but played more than Martin Brodeur. Schneider started in ten games and replaced Brodeur in the third period of the Stadium Series game. In fact, Brodeur starting in Yankee Stadium was the only start he made in the last two weeks of January. That's not an accident. If there's a bigger tell as to who's the man now, then I can't tell you what it is. And that's very good for the backend. Problem is: the team still has an offensive problem.
Devil of the Month
Nevertheless, it's Schneider's time to shine a bit as he shined throughout January. I spoiled that he would get named Devil of the Month earlier this week. At the time, he was riding a 96% save percentage in all situations. After the road trip, he's down to a still excellent 94.2% save percentage. In stark contrast to Brodeur, who was woeful at 86.2%. Sure, some of those Stadium Series goals were ridiculous bounces but the job of the goalie does call for them to bail out the team. Schneider has done that over and over in the past month. Brodeur hasn't except for the Montreal game.
To be fair, Schneider wasn't the only standout player. Patrik Elias missed a big chunk of the month with injury. When he returned, he put up four goals and four assists in eight games. Travis Zajac has been on the scoresheet with two goals and nine assists. Jaromir Jagr, who won this award three months running, made another strong case for it in January. He scored four goals, put up eleven assists, and took 47 shots. Jagr continues to be the very best signing the team made last summer; he still leads the team in scoring by a significant margin. He now only needs two goals to get to 700 and for all we know, it's going to happen in a short February. Ordinarily, this would be enough for Devils of the Month honors.
But not after the January Schneider had. Consider all of the low-scoring games. Consider all of the breakdowns, whether it's Salvador not being in position, Gelinas making a bad decision, or the forwards getting pinned too deep on offense and conceding a counter-attack odd man rush. Consider all of the tough situations where a big save was needed - and one was made. The Devils don't get anywhere near a 6-5-4 record with Brodeur in net given how he played. They probably don't get that record with a league average goalie. They needed someone to be spectacular in net. Someone who had two sub-90% appearances: 20 minutes in the Bronx, and only 16 shots against in Dallas. Someone like Cory Schneider, the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for January 2014. Here are highlights of the first Dallas game where #35 gave up 0.
Another month of treading water is completed. Is there anything about January that makes you think this team is on it's way of going somewhere? Or do you feel the opposite: that they're bound to fall from their current spot? What do you think the team needs to do quickly to have a better February and March? Do you agree that Schneider was the most outstanding player in the month of January for the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the past month in the comments. Thank you for reading.