Watching the New Jersey Devils over the last three games has been almost like an out-of-body experience. They go down 3 goals in the first period against Toronto, and anytime over the last few seasons that the Devils have gone down by that number, you might as well just call it. It’s over. But no, they fight back and score 4 goals in regulation and win in a shootout, something else that has plagued them over the recent seasons. That was weird enough, but then you have the Detroit game two nights later. Once again, the Devils give up 4 goals in regulation but don’t come away with 0 points! This time they happen to lose in overtime thanks to a Mike Green snapper, so they only get one point instead of two, but they gave up 4 goals, which is usually a death sentence, and still got a point. Then came the Pittsburgh game a night later. In another weird scenario, the Devils decided to not suppress shots and attempts, allowing the opponents to pepper Keith Kinkaid seemingly at will. Keith had to face 49 shots during the game, which is insane, and is another recipe for disaster. And he did give up 3 goals, although no one can doubt that he played excellent. But despite that, the Devils also managed 3 goals for themselves and got themselves another point.
If you removed any mention of the Devils in the paragraph above, and instead plugged in another team that is more offensive-minded and runs up scores, then it would seem completely normal. But I was referring to the New Jersey Devils, the defense-first team that has had real issues scoring over the last few seasons, but still managed to stay competitive at times with stellar goaltending. The last three games, however, were basically the exact opposite, and that is without Taylor Hall, by far the team’s best offensive player. To me, it was very bizarre.
In terms of analyzing, of course there were many negatives to hone in on, and John definitely discussed many of them in his game recaps. But today, as we all return to work, I want to spin what has happened in a positive light. There are some individual performances that have been stellar, and have led to the Devils getting 4 of the last 6 points despite all of the issues. As I mentioned above, Kinkaid was very quality on Saturday evening, holding off a dynamic offense that had free reign in the offensive zone. Michael Cammalleri has also been red hot since returning to the team. Without his offensive boost that was sorely needed since Hall went on IR, the Devils may have ended up with 0 points instead of 4. In my opinion, he deserves to be one of the NHL’s three stars of the week, no questions asked.
Looking at it in terms of the bigger picture, however, what I want to argue is that these last three games show that the Devils of 2016-17 are improved over recent seasons, and they give me reason to believe that maybe they will be more competitive come April than I may have initially thought before the season started. There are a couple reasons that I say this. First, these recent games show that the Devils can gain points in more ways than one. Two years ago, giving up anything more than 2 goals symbolized almost a near defeat any night, and anything more than 3 was a pure disaster. Not anymore. If Cory Schneider has a bad night, it does not instantly mean a loss, because the offense can actually produce goals when needed to at a much higher clip. I am not arguing that the offense is all of a sudden excellent, but they are absolutely improved, and this shows it. 9 goals over a two game span, 12 goals over a three game span, these are numbers that if I told you three years ago that the Devils could produce, you would’ve probably said I am way too optimistic. But now, it’s a reality. New Jersey is still a team that should be trying to win games by playing strong defense, having stout goaltending, and scoring enough to not be dreadful. But if that model disappears for a few games here or there, it does not instantly mean a losing streak. The Devils can produce points in other ways now.
Next, it shows that the Devils have way more fight than they used to, and perhaps this means a much better team culture where the players believe they are never out of it. Down 3 goals? Keep fighting, keep chipping away. This year, for this iteration of the Devils, the game isn’t over yet. The players are buying into John Hynes’ system and the team culture, and it is paying off on the ice with points. This makes them way more fun to watch, and it should hopefully continue to lead to the team being more competitive as the season progresses.
Also, and perhaps related to my last point, the last few games show that players can have off nights without it killing the team’s chances to win. I feel that over the last few years, if a key player like Schneider or Jaromir Jagr or Adam Henrique or someone else was off, it made it incredibly difficult to still remain competitive and get wins. But now, if someone has an off night, there are other players to pick them up and keep this team in it. On Saturday, the defense was having a bad night. It happens. But Kinkaid, a spot starter, put the defense on his back and carried them into a shootout. Hall goes down with an injury? No problem, Cammalleri will step up and produce offensively to keep this team in games. Henrique is silent? Nick Lappin makes up for that with his positive play ever since being called up. Kyle Palmieri having trouble scoring? PA Parenteau is there to pick up his slack for now until he finds his scoring touch once again. This year, there are players who are there to go above and beyond on nights where others are just not playing well. That, to me, is the mark of a good team, and it definitely shows that New Jersey is getting better.
So for those of you who were bummed out over the last couple games that the Devils may have played poorly overall, or they blew a late lead to Pittsburgh and only managed a point when they maybe should have gotten two, look at the bright side of things. This is a team that is now getting points from these games when in years’ past, they would not have. Above all else, that is a clear sign of improvement. The Devils may still be rebuilding, but it is clearly working. The Devils are a better team now than they were last season. Whether it translates to a playoff berth this year or not, the path to becoming an annual competitor is not as far off as it may have seemed two years ago.
What are your thoughts? Did you take away similar positives over the last three games? What else has happened recently that makes you think the Devils are getting better? Or, am I being too positive, and should we instead be focusing more on the negatives? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.