For the Devils, the 2015-16 season thus far has been all about exceeding expectations. As a team projected by most to be in a rebuilding year, New Jersey has surprised a lot of people around the NHL (including their own fans) by holding down a wild card spot for much of the last two months. Through a combination of solid goaltending, strong special teams play, and big contributions from their top six, the team has stayed in contention and been fun to watch for much of the season. Over the past several weeks, the team's play has appeared to start slipping a little bit, though.
Since the start of the always-treacherous western Canadian road trip in mid-November, the Devils have won just four of their past 11 games. It hasn't necessarily been a tailspin, with the team going 4-4-3 over the stretch, but the nights where the Devils have looked off, sloppy, or overmatched have started to increase in frequency. Perhaps most troubling about that observation is the quality of teams that it has been happening against. Many of the struggles the Devils have been having in this stretch have come against the league's bottom-dwellers. In these 11 games, the team has played just 3 against teams currently in the playoffs (and Vancouver, despite being in a playoff spot at the moment, is below NHL .500) and they've lost games to the current 30th, 29th, 27th, 26th, and 24th place teams in the league. In a section of schedule a playoff team would ideally be making some hay in, the team has been barely treading water, instead.
The underlying numbers, particularly of late, seem to agree with the feeling that the Devils have been in a bit of a malaise. Since the start of December, the team has collected just 44% of the even-strength 5v5 shot attempts in their games, all of which have been against non-playoff teams (possession stats via War-on-Ice). It's a small sample, but with the tenuous grip they have on their wild card spot, the Devils can't afford a lengthy run of poor play. Their 2-1-2 record has allowed them to keep pace with the teams around them, but a lot of those points, particularly the four collected in the past three games, have felt like the "stolen" variety based on the run of play.
Of course, those last three games just mentioned do have a common thread to them: the absence of Travis Zajac. The Devils shares of attempts (40%) and scoring chances (32%) from those games match what most are seeing on the ice. The Devils are being dominated for long stretches of these games and, to their credit, are pulling points out of the fire, but it isn't a recipe for sustained success. This doesn't mean that Zajac is some kind of unstoppable force but it does point to the depth issue that many have been worried about with this team and the havoc losing one of their top forwards can wreak. The Devils just don't have a lot of options to capably fill the hole left by a Zajac injury. And even if a player like Jacob Josefson or Patrik Elias can be a servicable fill-in, that means an already-problematic bottom-six just gets that much thinner.
To exacerbate this issue, the Devils had Adam Henrique leave the game with an apparent leg injury last night in Toronto. Now, it remains to be seen how severe the injury is for Henrique, but if he and Zajac both miss some time, it could get very ugly for New Jersey. Few teams can deal with the loss of their #1 and #2 centers but the makeup of the Devils' roster makes them particularly poorly equipped to handle such a blow.
The Devils do always have an ace in the hole for tough times, though, and it happens to wear jersey #35. Good goaltending, as we've seen in a number of instances this season (and throughout the history of hockey, I suppose), can paper over a lot of a team's flaws. The goalie remains the great equalizer, so if Cory Schneider can be particularly sharp for New Jersey, he can guide the team through some rough play and have them still pick up points. Ultimately, the team will have to re-find some form soon, though. Even the best goalies can have cold stretches and the Devils aren't currently playing well enough to deal with a downturn in net.
The bottom line is that the Devils have quality enough goaltending and special teams right now that they don't necessarily need to overwhelm opponents or be a dominant possession team but, realistically, they do need to play better than they have been to stick around in the playoff race. For now, it is definitely a good thing that they are able to still collect points even with the team having some substandard performances but they shouldn't plan on making a habit of it. They have to control more of the play at evens and they have to start handling the lesser opponents on their schedule if they really want to continue to be a factor in the playoff picture. Beyond that, that they should probably pray for some quick recoveries for Zajac and Henrique. Hopefully, this stretch will end up just being a speed bump along the way rather than a harbinger of doom for a team that has been a lot of fun to watch this season.