January has been a rather interesting time to be a fan of the New Jersey Devils. I feel this way as a season ticket holder, but I am sure it is the same regardless. Of the 6 away games that have gone on this month so far, a possible 12 points, the Devils have come away with 11 of them, only losing in overtime to Edmonton at the start of the Western Canadian road trip 2-1. Otherwise, the team has looked quite solid in many of those games, especially the 4-1 trouncing of Philadelphia last week. However, the games in Newark have been quite the opposite experience. Of those 14 possible points, New Jersey has managed to gain only 3 of them, a shutout against Boston at the very start of the month, and another overtime loss to Edmonton.
The home vs. away dichotomy has been quite stark. Perhaps I have noticed this a little more strongly than those who are not season ticket holders because I have seen all of those atrocious games in person, while the away games I am not there. And not even that, but given the fact that some of the games started quite late because they were in Western Canada, for some of those road victories I was not able to take in the entire game. However, I have seen every minute of the misery at the Rock, and yes I think misery is an apt word to describe much of the experience there in January (despite the absolutely awesome intro video on Retro Night this past Thursday. Other than the Boston shutout, I would argue it was the best part about being at the Rock in January). However, I am in no way discrediting those of you who did not see those home games in person, as I am entirely sure that seeing them on TV was no better.
The sad thing, however, is that this trend is not just specific to the 2017 calendar of games; it perhaps has just been more prevalent this month. The trend of bad play at home has been going on for quite some time now. In December, the Devils had 6 games at home for a potential 12 points, and only managed to come away with 4 of them, a 3-2 win over Vancouver on 12/6 and the 4-0 annihilation of Philadelphia on the 22nd. Add those two months together, and that is 7 points gained out of a possible 26 points. That is the definition of ugly.
Because the Devils played a road-heavy schedule at the start of the season, we are in for a bevy of home games coming up in February. Out of 11 games in the month, 9 of them are at the Rock, and 7 of those are in a 16 day span. Over the last two months, 7 points out of a possible 26 equates to a 0.269 point percentage. If that point percentage continues throughout February as well, we are looking at the Devils getting approximately 5 points at home this month out of the possible 18. Maybe 2 wins and an OTL out of 9 games. I don’t care if you are going to the games or if you are dedicated to watching them in a different location. That would not be a fun month.
Just to add to the home misery a little bit more, I used the term brutal in the title not simply because of the losses, but because of how bad they are losing at home. In January, no regulation loss at home has been by only 1 goal. They lost to Toronto, Montreal, and Los Angeles each by 2 goals and Florida and Washington by 3 goals each. But really, the 2 goal deficits in those games do not tell the story. The Devils were down to Toronto 4-0 on only 7 Leafs shots in the first period before scoring two garbage goals. I am pretty sure I saw people leaving that game after the first period, and that was on a Friday night. For the Los Angeles game, the Devils did not even show up on time, and then when they did it was not in full force. I mean, the Devils were losing by more than 1 goal for almost the entire 60 minutes, and despite what score effects would normally tell you, they actually lost the possession battle. Despite playing with a lead, LA was driving play forward more, as the Devils just could not hang with them. Cory Schneider had to get pulled for Keith Kinkaid after he gave up 3 goals in the first period, but then the very next game against Washington, Kinkaid needs to get pulled for Schneider after giving up 4. Yes the defense provided absolutely no assistance to Kinkaid against Washington, but regardless the fact of the matter is that a change in goal was deemed necessary two games in a row. Despite what I felt was a really awesome Retro Night vibe, I already said I loved the intro video and I was all about the constant use of 8-bit sound and gaming music, the hockey game was basically a dud, I might as well have went home and played the real iteration of Ice Hockey on my Wii virtual console. And the same could be said for basically every other regulation loss at home this month. Bad hockey from the home squad.
Now I know that was a seriously negative paragraph right there, and I don’t mean to come off as the bitter Devils fan that brings everyone down. I just want to bring light to what is possible for this team next month should New Jersey continue to play as poorly at home as they have been. While I currently have no playoff aspirations for this team, they theoretically are only 7 points out of a playoff spot at the All-Star Break. That does not give them a great chance, but they are not the Colorado Avalanche at least. A Columbus-style winning streak puts them in the dance come April. Even without that, some strong hockey over the next two months would go a long way, considering there are 6 teams in the East who are within 3 points of NJ. Playing competitive hockey is a must if this team is to really improve and grow during this rebuilding period. Just because a team is in ‘rebuilding mode,’ it is not an excuse for how this team has been playing at home for quite some time now. While the negativity I showcased in recapping my experience at the Rock this past month is not ideal, neither is simply accepting it and being ok with what has been happening on home ice. There needs to be a drive to play better, especially in front of the home, paying crowd. People this past month who were not able to stay up and watch the Western Canadian games, which were excellent for NJ, but were able to see the home games, saw a team that was frankly non-competitive and showed no signs of any positive growth in rebuilding. I understand that is not entirely the fault of the team, they should try to win every night regardless of location and time, but it still is a fact nonetheless.
In the end, this is what makes next month a potentially frightening prospect. 9 home games coming up, 7 within a 16 day span. If the Devils continue to play games at home like they have over basically the past two months, forget calling this season a positive movement for the rebuild. It would certainly mean a very high pick in this year’s draft for anyone who is hoping to tank, but for fans who are looking to see this team and its young players develop and get better, and especially for fans who are looking to see a competitive hockey team night in and night out at the Rock, we may be left empty handed come February 28th if the team’s play at home does not improve considerably. People complain that the attendance is poor as compared to other NHL franchises, and I do see lots of empty seats on weeknights, but it is hard to blame people for not wanting to spend their hard-earned money to see a team that has not played consistent, quality hockey at home in some time. Instead, those fans may be home playing Ice Hockey or Blades of Steel on their NES consoles, or maybe NHL ’94 on the SNES. I could understand that.