The calendar's shortest month wasn't short on hockey. The New Jersey Devils weren't short in results either. They put up a record of 7-5-1, which can be considered to be good. Or at least above average. For a team that had only twelve wins by Christmas, I'll err on the side of the more impressive adjective. The winning record for the month didn't really move the Devils up in the standings all that much. Only from seventh in the Metropolitan to sixth and still around sixth or seventh from last in the league. The team needed supremacy on the ice to even get close to a playoff bubble and they didn't get it. The team needed absolute calamity to get their proverbial toe in the water of the bottom five of the league. The Devils remain as a bad team, but the month of February showed that they can be competitive and get some wins to salvage some pride. Let's review what happened.
The Month that Was
February began with the Devils continuing a five-game home-stand after the All-Star Break. The Devils would be successful, though not necessarily from how they played the games. On February 3, the Devils hosted Ottawa and won 2-1 in another night of hideous hockey. In that recap, I wrote the following:
Like last Wednesday's game, the Senators were just as poor in executing their own game plan and never made the adjustments to make things better. They got some opportunities well-denied but they could have had so much more. This continues a theory I've been having about the Devils: if the opponent isn't good and/or isn't effectively moving the puck, then the Devils have a chance. If they are good and/or they are moving the puck crisply and in stride, then the Devils are in deep trouble. Tonight was another example of the former situation, only the Devils didn't take full advantage. When [Cory] Schneider (or Keith Kinkaid) isn't so amazing or the team's opponents get better or just play well, then the Devils' performance will yield L's instead of W's. That did not happen tonight.
Please keep this in mind as you read this recap of the games and afterwards. A few nights later, the Devils played another game where their opponent heavily out-shot them but won the game. However, that was the result of score effects as the Devils ran up a good lead and cruised to a 4-1 win over Toronto. The night was additionally notable as Patrik Elias scored his 400th goal. The win over the Maple Leafs made it a 4-0-1 homestand for the Devils. Would this be a sign of things to come? Nope. As early as the very next night, February 7, the Devils went up to Montreal and got routed 2-6. It was a game against a superior opponent that knew how to make the Devils' errors turn into issues for the Devils over and over. It was definitely a reality check.
It also turned out to be start of another losing streak. On Monday, the Devils hosted Edmonton, the second worst team in hockey. They managed to put up a performance so dreadful, it can simply be called pathetic. The Devils were out-played in a 1-2 loss to the Oilers. Later in that week, the Devils had to travel to Chicago and Nashville for a back-to-back set. Yes, two teams with plenty of good players that are bound for the playoffs. If you expected losses, then that's what happened. The Devils got dropped by the same score, 1-3, to the Blackhawks and the Predators, who both were decisive in their victories. The only silver lining from those games was that the Devils weren't blown out by either like the Canadiens did to them a week prior. The Devils lost four in a row and any hope of even competitive hockey appeared to be dim, nevermind winning hockey.
Fortunately, the antidote for that began with Buffalo. The Devils began a six-game homestand with the Sabres on February 17. While their goaltender played very well, the Devils actually out-shot and out-possessed an opponent for the first time all month - and the first time since their last meeting in early January. Because of the goalie, the Devils could only get one past him and a shootout was necessary to decide the game. But the Devils won that shootout against Buffalo to snap the losing streak. The Devils did well enough against Vancouver on February 20, a rare case of the Devils not looking like trash for two games in a row. They built up a lead, held on, and sealed the game to take it 4-2 over the Canucks. On the very next night, the Devils hosted Carolina and stormed them for three first period goals. It was too much for the Canes to overcome, and so the Devils won 3-1. On Monday, the Devils hosted a struggling Arizona squad in the hopes of making it four in a row. Cory Schneider shut them out for a 3-0 victory to make it four wins in a row. It would be the first winning streak of that length since February 2013. Would it appear that the Devils are turning a corner now?
Not quite. Calgary visited on February 25. While the Devils scored first, the Flames had the better run of play and would make up the small deficit. The Devils lost 1-3 to end the winning streak. Boston arrived on February 27 to end the six-game home-stand. While the Bruins were dominant for the first period and went up two goals, the Devils actually tied it up within the third period in a game that turned out to be rather entertaining. However, the Bruins would prevail in overtime to pick up that important second point. The Devils had to settle for only one in a 2-3 loss. The end of the month - both on the calendar and for the Devils - had the Devils travel to face a beaten-up and struggling Columbus. Most of the game was controlled by Columbus as Schneider had to be leaned on to defend a one-goal lead throughout. Schneider did just that, the Devils got an ENG, and so they closed out the month with a 2-0 win. Good result, but another performance that leaves a lot to be desired out of the net.
The goaltending throughout February was fantastic. Only did the Devils get blown away once, and I hardly think that was Keith Kinkaid's fault in Montreal. That was a result of the skaters' play which was terrible that night and mostly bad throughout February. Only a handful of times did the Devils build up a lead and give their goaltender more than a goal to work with. And some of those leads became one-goal leads that inspired further anguish from a fan base that has witnessed a lot of bad hockey. Results may be moot as the playoffs are certainly not going to happen for New Jersey this season, but nobody likes seeing a lead blown and it leads that could be blown at any moment are a legitimate concern. That the Devils were able to avoid that fate and put up a record of 7-5-1 despite scoring 27 non-shootout goals in February really speaks to how good the goaltending was in the month. They didn't have a lot of margin for error. And at the same time, how unproductive the Devils were.
Consider the opposition that the Devils played, as well. They got six out of their seven wins against teams that are definitely not going to make the playoffs: Ottawa, Toronto, Buffalo, Carolina, Arizona, and Columbus. They only lost one game to a non-playoff bound team. Which annoys me because it's Edmonton. Yet, the games against playoff or possibly playoff bound teams were nearly all losses with the exception of Vancouver. That is also telling and it's also in line with what I wrote after that first recap. The performances weren't all that good and when the opponent was actually good, it was a long night for New Jersey. No corner was turned despite a winning month.
There were some big changes. Lou uttered a significant word you're going to read about for a while: transition. The team is in a "transition." It's not quite the same as a rebuild, but I suspect it will be. It'll probably be the closest we'll hear from him saying that. Regardless, between the games, the common question throughout the month was regarding what the Devils will do at the trade deadline. That's a few hours away after this is posted. Would the Devils move their veterans? Would they swing for a bigger deal? Would the winning lead Lou to think he was a buyer? The last question: no. The second question: not sure as of this writing. The first question: Already done with possibly more to come. Jaromir Jagr was traded on February 26 to the Florida Panthers for their second round draft pick in 2015 and a conditional third round pick in 2016. Jagr didn't do much in February on the ice (one goal, two assists); and off the ice, he made no secret about how willing he would be to adapt if he were traded. So one veteran has been moved already. Maybe more by the time this is up.
Nevertheless, the goal for the rest of the season should be evaluation. The games in March and April should be used to determine who's really going to provide value in the future of this "transition," and who will not. And those who do not, the team should move on from post-haste. I suspect that is why we got to witness Jordin Tootoo up on an actual scoring line (with some actual success). Why we got to witness Eric Gelinas have games with Peter Harrold and then games with Mark Fraser. Why we got to see Adam Larsson and Andy Greene play an excessive amount of minutes for better (usually) or worse (rarely). Why we've seen players like Jagr, Scott Gomez, and Dainius Zubrus get reductions in minutes as well as Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat spending most of February as healthy scratches. The Devils aren't likely going to be so bad as to crash the bottom five of the league and they're not going to go for the postseason. So it's prime time to plan for 2015-16 and beyond (e.g. where does Damon Severson fit in when he returns?), regardless of the 7-5-1 record in February.
Lastly, harking back to what I wrote in the first recap of this month that I quoted in this post, the losses will come. March does have some weaker games, but some also very strong ones. And as great as Schneider was in February, it's very difficult to maintain greatness for another full month. Unless the Devils skaters start playing way better or if their sticks get hot, the percentages won't keep going the Devils' way. Given that the Devils are playing like a 46%
Devil of the Month
In the very last recap of February, from the Devils' 2-0 win in Columbus, I stated that I would be hard-pressed to find a more deserving Devil of the Month than Cory Schneider. The closest to Schneider's excellence for the month would come down to how much you feel about Adam Larsson's play (don't look at his CF%, though), Mike Cammalleri's seven goals and three assists (goals are good, though some nights he wasn't effective outside of a shot or two), and Tootoo not being a total waste when given good linemates and significant minutes (pro: two goals, four assists; con: isn't good at all on defense). I would argue that none of them really come close to how excellent Schneider was throughout the month.
From his split stats at NHL.com, he started eleven games, played in twelve (he filled in for Kinkaid, who got hurt in the Carolina game), and faced 343 shots. Schneider only conceded eighteen goals. Seriously. His two shutouts were in games where he faced 38 shots from Arizona and 33 shots from Columbus. Neither team are offensive powerhouses - and seriously, Devils defense, get it together - but it is very difficult to turn away all shots when there's that much volume. Schneider followed up an awesome January with an awesome-plus February with a 94.8% save percentage in all situations. It has rocketed him up to third among save percentage leaders at NHL.com as of March 1, with an overall save percentage of 92.7% for the season. At War on Ice, Schneider is now third in adjusted even strength save percentage at 94.24% thanks to an awesome February where he posted a 95.81% adjusted even strength save percentage. No matter how you describe it, Schneider was on another level in February. He single-handedly prevented losses from being blowout losses and kept tight games possible for a low-scoring, low-shooting, and low-performing Devils team. CJ says he's an elite goaltender. Months like this and the last one make it hard to say he's wrong. So for the second straight month, I name Schneider the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for February 2015. I can only hope the team can try to reward his excellent play by giving him some actual goal support a little more often. 94% save percentage goaltending doesn't last forever for anyone.
February was just a bit more successful than January, due in part in Schneider just being a bit more superb in those months. The trade deadline will end before the Devils play their first game in March and by that point, there could be some serious changes to the roster to go with that eventual drop in percentages. Again, the goal should be to use the month for evaluation as this transition moves on. Until then, what did you think about the month of February for the Devils? Would you say it went well or not? What from the month do you think the Devils can build from? What are your expectations for the rest of the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the month that was and my selection for the Devil of the Month in the comments. Thank you for reading.