For the first time this season, the New Jersey Devils won more than half of the games to play within a month. Out of eleven games in January, the Devils won six of them. Further, they lost two of the five they didn't win beyond regulation. That's a monthly record of 6-3-2, which isn't all that bad. That's a positive for a team that's firmly entrenched outside of the playoff picture and dealing with a coaching change and a roster recovering from illness and injury. Yet, a closer look at those games do not suggest that the team has turned any kind of corner.
The Month that Was
The calendar year of 2015 began with the familiar sight of a loss. The Devils hosted Montreal on January 2 and it started off poorly as they found themselves down 0-3 by the early minutes of the third period. New Jersey would attempt a comeback in the third period, and there was hope in the process. It was not to be when Montreal iced the game with an empty netter for a 2-4 loss. A better result would come on the next night. The Devils hosted a Philadelphia team that was rather woeful at the time. The Devils engaged in a glorious beatdown of the Second Rate Rivals, dropping five goals on them before they even responded. At that point, they were nothing but consolation goals. Jaromir Jagr recorded his first hat trick since 2006 in a 5-2 win that was simply jubilant. Lost season or otherwise, it's never a bad time to badly beat a rival down.
The good times kept rolling when Buffalo came to the Rock. Anyone who had doubts about how bad of a team Buffalo was only needed to the first period, where they somehow worse than the Flyers on January 3. The Devils took full advantage, scored three goals, and never looked back. Buffalo put up more of a challenge in the following periods, took one goal back, but conceded an empty netter to seal a 4-1 win for New Jersey. The victory featured Devils legend Patrik Elias scoring his 399th goal, 600th assist, and 100th point. Alas, the Devils would not be facing crummy teams later that week. A road game in Boston quickly dropped the Devils back down to the reality that they are not a good team. A pathetic performance in nearly all aspects yielded a 0-3 loss in Boston. The Devils fared better the next night against the New York Islanders. Decent hockey was played, odd goals were scored, but a superstar play by superstar John Tavares provided the difference in overtime. The Devils lost that one 2-3 in overtime, but that was easier to witness than the night prior.
That loss to the Isles would be the last game at The Rock until after the All-Star Game. New Jersey took their annual trip to California to take on all three teams in the state. Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose are good-to-great teams. Surprisingly, it didn't go that awfully as one would fear. The Devils got good fortune - a power play goal for Steve Bernier that was really put in by a Kings defenseman, another power play goal for Steve Bernier that went off a Kings' defenseman's skate stick out - and some quick scores to stun the Kings. By the end of the second period, it was 5-1 and the rest of the game was just cruising for a 5-3 win. The next game in the trip would not go so well. Anaheim dominated the Devils like Boston did earlier in the month and so many other teams this season thanks to a better handle on the fundamentals of the game. The Ducks stunned Cory Schneider with a shot, scored shortly thereafter, Schneider was replaced after the first period by Keith Kinkaid for precautionary reasons, and the Ducks just broke through with goals as the Devils' skaters got wrecked. The Devils were demolished in a 1-5 loss. But a happier day (night?) would return to the team in the Bay Area. New Jersey hung with San Jose's early quick pace, moved the puck very well, and put a lot of shots on net. Those shots would get in and by the third period, the Devils were up 3-2. In the third, San Jose took it up a notch, set their power play on ferocious, and forced Schneider to be magnificent. He was, the Devils helped him with two big insurance goals, and the final result was a 5-2 win. That third period was tilted, but it was easily the best game the team played against a not-terrible team all month and their first in a while.
The All-Star Game provided a break in the schedule. Patrik Elias was selected as the lone Devils representative. He was drafted by Jonathan Toews' team. In the traditionally high-scoring affair, Elias picked up two assists. The rest of the team was able to rest up, re-group, and re-charge. Knowing that makes the final week of games by the Devils more face-palm worthy in retrospect.
The Devils began a five-game homestand that will end in early February by hosting Toronto on January 28. There were large stretches of the game where it wasn't clear whether either team wanted to win the game. The night was filled with bad passes, bad decisions, bad puck control, and bad moments. A very ugly game, but it did have some success near the end. James van Reimsdyk would score one-on-one late in the third, Adam Larsson provided an equalizer, the Devils (namely Cory Schneider) survived overtime, and the home team pulled out a shootout win thanks to Jacob Josefson (!) and Elias (!!). The 2-1 win was hideous but it would not get better. On Friday night, the Devils hosted Pittsburgh. New Jersey moved the puck about as well as they did in that game. Pittsburgh played like a really good hockey team, so they just kept attacking, attacking, and attacking. Bernier got the game's first goal, but the Penguins would finally crack Schneider late in the game for an equalizing power play goal. Overtime continued the Pens' dominance and they would win there on Simon Despres' shot - the 43rd for Pittsburgh that night - getting past traffic. The Devils lost 1-2 in OT, a game where only Schneider was excellent. The lessons of bad puck possession would not be learned for the final game of the month. Well, that's not entirely true. The Devils would play a solid first period against Florida, scoring two beautiful goals in the process. They followed that up by registering four shots on net for the rest of regulation. Fortunately, Keith Kinkaid played very well, the Devils tacked on an ENG, and the lone goal scored was only a consolation. The Devils secured a winning month with a 3-1 regulation win.
In the biggest picture of hockey being a results-oriented business, there's not much of an issue here. A 6-3-2 month for a bad hockey team is pretty good. Yet, after considering the performances, it's not all that good. Or even just good. The Devils beat up on two crummy teams (yes, Philly, you're not good, current winning streak notwithstanding), got some great fortune to help demoralize Los Angeles, and the month-closing 5-out-of-6 points were largely because the goaltending was superb. I'd go as far as to say the Devils played exactly one not-bad period as a team in their final three games. Their three regulation losses featured them getting deservedly beaten and they call came from legitimately good teams. They may have received better results than what they have been, but this isn't going to continue unless you earnestly believe Schneider and Kinkaid can keep putting the team on their back and Lady Luck isn't going to gift some bounces to the opposition. Therefore, I cannot agree that the Devils are really any better now than what they were a month or two ago in spite of a better monthly record.
This isn't to say that nothing good did happen. Again, the goaltending was largely excellent. The crease is not where the issue lies. The team would eventually get healthier. By month's end, the sadness of watching Tim Sestito getting a regular shift is not present at The Rock, and the only one really missing is Damon Severson. Seeing Adam Larsson actually do well on a top pairing for a number of games (I'm hesitant to say anyone on the defense did well in the last three games) was a plus. Seeing Steve Bernier return and get hot (five goals in eight games) was a plus. Seeing Mike Cammalleri be productive despite being not really fitting in a third line spot. Seeing Jagr get a hat trick and Elias hit milestones were pluses. As one would expect in a winning month, there were certainly some high points.
Yet, all of these pluses get overshadowed by the elephant of a minus in the room: puck movement remains inefficient and often ineffective. If they're playing an opponent that isn't having those struggles, then it's all on the goalie to bail them out or something else out of their control to work their way. And I don't mean for a part of a period or even a full period, which can happen to anyone, but for a majority of the game. It doesn't lead to competent hockey. It doesn't make teams want to trade assets for players on said teams. It doesn't result in something to build on for 2015-16. The record covers that up. So unless they get better, that may not continue into February.
Devil of the Month
As a 6-3-2 month did have positives, there was none bigger than the goaltending. Just look at the last week of the month, where the team was significantly out-shot in each game yet only four goals were conceded in the run of play. Just look at the fact that the Devils took two opposing teams beyond regulation. Mike questioned whether the 2014-15 Devils were one of the worst teams in franchise history largely because they have been out-shot so much. That they did not get blown out of most of their games is a testament to the two guys in the net.
As good as Keith Kinkaid was, Anaheim game notwithstanding, Cory Schneider was the real star of the month. In January, he made eight appearances, earned a 5-1-1 record, and posted an astounding save percentage of 94%. Just look at his splits at NHL.com. While he played less than he did in previous months, conceding only fourteen goals in eight appearances (seven and a third if you want to get technical) is very impressive. As is the fact he didn't concede more than three goals in one game, and that only happened once this month, against the Kings. His 94% save percentage is his best all month and keep in mind that's an overall save percentage. It has propelled him to just outside - the difference is very small - the top-ten in the league among save percentage leaders. That's excellent for any goaltender, more so considering the quality of the guys in front of him. In a month where the Devils' results were good and the performances were not consistently good, Cory Schneider was superb throughout it. He played at such a level that I don't think he'll sustain it for long, but it's a level worthy of the distinction of being the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for January 2015. If for no other reason, watch the Devils for the rest of this season to see #35 be excellent.
Despite my down opinion on how this past month played out, it was a successful January from a record standpoint. What do you think about how the team played in January? Do you also see it as a success? What moments, games, or events stood out to you from January? Would you agree that Schneider as the Devil of the Month? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team played last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.