As many of you may have noticed of late, the Devils are in something of a tailspin over the past couple weeks. Following last night’s overtime loss in Chicago, the Devils have now lost seven of their last eight games and are sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference and outside of the playoff bubble. Many of the good feelings that were around when the Devils were 9-3-3 and on a five-game winning streak a couple weeks ago have suddenly vanished. Excitement for Devils games has again been replaced with the more familiar over the past several years sense of dread. These woes aren’t really coming from their typical source (lack of goal scoring), though.
To see why the Devils have been struggling of late, one needs to look no further than the team’s goals against column, where they have yielded at least three in each of the past eight games, averaging 3.75 against over that span. The offense, typically the main culprit for many Devils skids over the years, has actually been serviceable over that span, putting up 2.5 goals per game. Of late, though, the typically stingy Devils have been troubled at the defensive end of the ice, instead. Over the past few weeks, the defense has looked out of sorts in their own end, committing some bad turnovers and struggling to properly defend in transition. A combination of this sloppy blue line play and an uncharacteristically bad stretch of goaltending from Cory Schneider have led to this recent slide.
Much of these struggles have occurred on the road, where the Devils continue to flounder this season. Back at the start of November, I wrote that the Devils were going to have to survive a road heavy stretch of schedule if they wanted to stay in the race. For a bit, it looked like they had turned their fortunes around away from Newark, winning three straight away games in Carolina, Buffalo, and Dallas. Things have gone awry again, though, as the Devils have lost each of their last six road games. With the team now a dismal 3-7-4 away from the Prudential Center (a .357 points percentage or 58 points over 82 games), they will have to figure out a way to play sound hockey on the road where they’re not always going to get the matchups they want.
The defensive issues have been somewhat predicable, as few were predicting smooth sailing for the entirety of the season from this defensive group. More surprising though, has been the dip in Cory Schneider’s play of late, which has largely coincided with the recent stretch of losses. After a stellar October with a .941 sv%, November was considerably more rocky for Schneider with an .893 sv%, his lowest in any month with at least 5 starts since March 2014. Zeroing in on this eight game stretch in particular, his save percentage drops all the way to an .875 in 6 starts.
So what is the problem? Does Schneider need more rest? One could potentially make that argument, particularly with the amount the Devils have been on the road early on, but his current percentage of starts (78%) projects to 64 games, which falls right between the amount of starts he’s had in the past two seasons, both of which have been stellar. Perhaps he should get a little extra rest while the Devils continue to travel for the next two weeks, with the Devils in the midst of a stretch of 11 consecutive games with travel in between (the only two home games are singles between road games).
Generally speaking, though, I think its hard to pin his struggles on much more than the typical ebbs and flows that any goaltender has. The defense has certainly been culpable on a number of goals, with a good example being last night’s Artem Anisimov goal, which featured the Devils’ skaters completely out to lunch while Anisimov gathered a rebound and potted it right in front with nobody coming close to touching him. But no matter how leaky a defense is, it isn’t an excuse for sub-.900 goaltending in the modern NHL. To wit, Schneider allowed a moderatly soft one later in overtime to Marian Hossa to end things.
The good news is that Schneider has been one of the league’s best goaltenders for a while and will likely bounce back before long. Stretches like this are pretty much to be expected for any goaltender, even the very best. Schneider will come around and be Schneider again before long. The less good news is that the defense that we’re seeing right now that has given up over 33 shots a game and numerous chances in the past 8 games is probably something we should get used to, at least in stretches this season. But with the return of Mike Cammalleri last week and Taylor Hall last night, the Devils’ lineup is getting close to full strength again. So if Schneider can rebound to his usual form, the team should be able to right the ship, at least to some extent, over the next few weeks.
Stats retrieved via Hockey-Reference.com