While the 2017 portion of this season was great, the 2018 was mixed at best. While February was a positive month, the results of teams around them plus the lack of them at times put the playoff hopes in doubt. The New Jersey Devils were at risk of being forced out of a playoff spot after occupying one throughout the regular season. It was a month filled with drama on a nightly basis filled with scoreboard watching and hoping the Devils would prevail. However, it would end in the right direction. The Devils pulled off some huge wins over top-tier teams, loads of close-score games, finished the month with a winning record of 8-6-1, and, most importantly, control of their own playoff destiny. As we enter the final week of the regular season and hope for a postseason matchup, let us review March 2018 for the New Jersey Devils.
The Games of March 2018
The month of March started off poorly. Coming off a road win in Pittsburgh to close out February, the Devils had to deal with Florida, Columbus, and Carolina from a playoff perspective. The Devils had a small cushion at the time. That cushion was cut short as the Devils played two bad road games in a row. First, a 2-3 loss in Florida that further emboldened the Panthers’ hot run of results after the All-Star Break. Second, a 1-3 loss in Carolina where Keith Kinkaid was great but was done in by two bad bounced as the Devils skaters were smothered by the Canes. It was a bad back-to-back set that started to throw the Devils’ playoff hopes into doubt.
The Devils returned home for three games before embarking on a very difficult road trip. On March 4, the Devils played the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time ever. Despite being down by just one goal going into the third period, the Devils failed to play with the urgency, execution, and sharpness needed to score a third goal. So they didn’t; they lost to Vegas 2-3. On March 6, the Devils hosted a reeling Montreal Canadiens team. The Devils went on an offensive explosion, scoring six goals in the first two periods. Montreal clawed back some consolation goals, but the final result of 6-4 was still the Devils’ first win of the month. On March 8, the Devils hosted Winnipeg. This game started an eight game run where the Devils would face some of the best teams in the Western Conference and have it end with a back-to-back against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. This was the last home game before a six-game road trip against those strong Western Conference squads. The Devils put up a better performance but they could not score three goals again as they lost 2-3 to Winnipeg. The Devils would limp into a road trip with games against Nashville, Vegas, all three California teams, and Tampa Bay with a 1-4-0 record in the month and their playoff spot hanging by a thread.
Fortunately, the winning would begin. Kinkaid played out of his mind as the Devils survived waves of yellow jerseys attacking them for 65 minutes. The Devils prevailed in a shootout to get a much-needed win and start off on this road trip on the right way. On a late night in Vegas, the Devils survived an early surge before just beating two bad goaltending performances. The Devils never let up on the scoring as they scored eight in Vegas. The Devils beat the Golden Knights in their building 8-3. The good times on this trip kept on rolling into Los Angeles. There, Kinkaid was a star again as he denied everything LA threw at him. Michael Grabner actually scored a goal, Nico Hischier doubled the lead, and Andy Greene added further insurance. The Devils won 3-0 and they were 3-0 on the Most Difficult Road Trip of the Season. All was looking good.
It would not last. On the next night, Anaheim exerted their strength and controlled the game against a tired New Jersey squad. The Devils decidedly lost, 2-4. On March 20, the Devils visited San Jose in their final game against a Western Conference opponent this season. Cory Schneider got the start and was wrecked - along with the rest of the team. He was pulled in what would be his last appearance in the crease as of this writing. Not that Kinkaid did much better; the Devils were blown out by a 2-6 final score. The road trip would end in Pittsburgh. The Penguins put up a better fight and threw everything at Keith Kinkaid, including the kitchen sink. They erased a 3-1 lead in the third period to force overtime. However, Nico Hischier hooked up Taylor Hall with a brilliant pass and Hall finished the game with a breakaway goal to make it a 4-3 OT win. The eight-game run would end with a home game against Tampa Bay. Kinkaid got the start again and excelled again. The Devils would lead 2-0 heading into the third period and hold on for a 2-1 victory over what was then the top team in the Atlantic. The Devils ended their road trip with a 4-2-0 record and their eight game run 5-3-0.
Cruelly, the Devils were just a few points ahead of Florida in the standings for their wild card spot. One would think that going 4-2-0 on the road trip the Devils just had plus beating a team of Tampa Bay’s quality on the night after that trip ended would be enough to secure a spot. But Florida stayed hot throughout the Devils’ run. Columbus surged in the interim to go well past the Devils and Carolina sagged their way out of the playoff race. So the Devils still had to pay attention to what Florida would do as they entered the final week of March and the penultimate week of the season.
They would get fortune in their favor. The Panthers would only get three points out of a potential eight. The Devils would get five out of six. On March 27, the Devils completed a third-period comeback late in the game with Stefan Noesen pounding in a rebound in a 4-3 win. On March 29, the Devils would hold on for overtime against Pittsburgh - only to lose 3-4 early in overtime. The OT loss was thanks to Sidney Crosby hitting the post on a breakaway and batting in the rebounded puck in mid-air. It was still a big point for the Devils. In the final game of the month, the Devils hosted the New York Islanders. The Devils had some great runs, but the Isles provided a challenge and pulled within one goal late in the third. But the Devils held on for a 4-3 win that ended up putting the Devils five points up on Florida in the standings with Florida only having one game in hand.
After starting the month 1-4-0, the Devils went 7-2-1 in the following ten games. While they finished March tied in 16th in the league with 17 points earned, they got hot, for lack of a better term. It was enough (with help) to put them on the precipice of making the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The four games in April do matter; the Devils just have to take care of business (as you’re reading this, the Devils did beat Montreal, so the Devils are even closer to making it).
By the Numbers
The numbers provide evidence to how the team has performed in various situations. These numbers were pulled from the linked sites on March 2, 2018; so it is inclusive of the entire month of February.
5-on-5 Play: Rather than hit you with a ton of words, I want hit you with a chart of what I usually type up. If you like it, then I’ll use it going forward and for the other sections in By the Numbers.The source for these numbers is the always-incredible and stable Natural Stat Trick. All ranks are out of 31; higher is better for the for-rate stats, lower is better for the against-rate stats. Numbers in green are in the top-ten, numbers in red are in the bottom eleven.
There’s a lot of red this month for New Jersey.
Looking at this as a whole, it’s a miracle that the Devils ended up with a 8-6-1 record. The Devils were heavily out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced. Even when adjusting for venues and scores, the Devils were still drowning in CF%, SF%, and SCF%. Yet, the Devils do not have a great shooting percentage or even a great save percentage (Kinkaid was great, Schneider did drag it down). The Devils were even out-scored by five goals in 5-on-5 play. This is a downgrade from last month to say the least. While the Devils got the results they needed, the main takeaway from this is that the Devils have to be better in 5-on-5 play. They’re not always going to get the opportunistic goals or goaltending. They were fortunate that they did in March. Should you want the Devils to do something in the playoffs or keep improving in 2018-19, then the Devils need to rebound from months like this. Being better than only the Rangers in CF% is a bad, bad thing.
So what helped the Devils get wins in March? Special teams.
Power Play Situations: For all of the criticism I have of Geoff Ward and the Devils’ power play performances, they were successful in March. According to NHL.com, the Devils finished March with 13 power play goals out of 46 opportunities. The success rate of 28.3% ranked sixth in the NHL in March; the 13 power play goals were the fifth most in the NHL in March; and the 46 opportunities were tied with four other teams for the sixth-most in the NHL in March. All this and the Devils allowed no shorthanded goals. By these metrics, the Devils legitimately had one of the better power plays in March. Only the power play ice time, 69:48, was ranked outside of the top ten at 16th. And that is more than fine because scoring goals ends power plays.
In a game-by-game look, the Devils only had five games in March where they did not convert a power play goal. These PPGs carried value at their time in the ten games they did occur in. Their lone goals against Florida and Carolina were power play goals. Half of the goals scored in the 6-4 win over Montreal were power play goals. The Carolina win was helped with two conversions. The PPGs against the Penguins and the Isles put the Devils up at the time.
The Devils weren’t that bad in terms of generating offense in power play situations. The Devils’ CF/60 rate (104.39) ranked 12th and their SF/60 rate (60.39) ranked 10th in March according to Natural Stat Trick. The team’s shooting percentage was 18.57%, which was the sixth best in March, so the shots the Devils did take would get in. This is not to say there were no bad power plays and bad games for the PP in March. But from this look, maybe Geoff Ward should not be fired just yet. The power play was important in March.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils’ penalty kill was not lights-out, shut-them-down effective in all of March. According to NHL.com, the Devils finished tied for 19th in success rate at 78.4%, killing 29 out of 37 situations. That means they allowed eight power play goals. The 37 shorthanded situations was tied with two other teams for the seventh lowest in the NHL, so the Devils were at least relatively disciplined. Likewise, their 60:28 of shorthanded ice time ranked ninth in the NHL. However, the big win for the PK in March were the shorthanded goals. The Devils scored three (only Vegas had more with four), reducing their PK goal differential to -5. To that end, it’s why the PK seems better than the success rate does.
So does a game-by-game breakdown. The Devils only conceded power play goals in more than one game in a row just once. That was in the losses to Anaheim and San Jose. It would be perfect for a night, give up a goal or two, then go back to perfection. Some of the PPGAs did not matter, like Vegas’ two when the Devils beat them 8-3. The one allowed to Tampa Bay only cut the lead in half. The Isles did get one; but the Devils got a shorty of their own. The Devils also had some great nights on the penalty kill, such as going 6-for-6 against Los Angeles and disrespecting Carolina’s power play on March 27.
However, a look at the rate stats at Natural Stat Trick shows that the Devils could have been better at limiting opposing power plays so well. The Devils’ CA/60 rate (108.51) ranked 23rd in March, although their SA/60 rate (54.26) ranked 15th. The team’s save percentage of 85.96% ranked 16th, so while Kinkaid did well in the whole month, he alone wasn’t carrying the PK. But, again, the offense was there and the three shorthanded goals helped big time in March. All together with the power play, the Devils’ special teams scored 16 goals and allowed eight. That makes up a difference over a negative 5-on-5 difference in goals. The PK could be tighter in terms of limiting shots and making stops. But the discipline is good, the PK did not have a “bad streak,” and the shorthanded goals mitigate what they allowed.
Additions and Subtractions
Since the trade deadline was at the end of February, the Devils have not had a lot of additions and subtractions to the lineup. Nobody was called up from Binghamton and played. Anyone who got hurt, like Miles Wood or Patrick Maroon missing a few (they would return in March), were easily replaced by someone already on the roster. Pavel Zacha would return to action in March. He played in nine games and contributed a little. Performance-based decisions helped Mirco Mueller come in for four games and Drew Stafford to play seven games. Jesper Bratt has been in and out, but more often in with 10 games than out. Ben Lovejoy was scratched for Mueller after a bad game and being primarily responsible for a goal against in the Pittsburgh game on March 23.
While it did not happen in March, Marcus Johansson was cleared for contact in practices on Saturday, March 31 and he was activated from injured reserve on April 1. He has been out with a concussion caused by Brad Marchand elbowing him in the head on January 23. It is good to see him back to playing soon, hopefully he gets in a game or two before the season ends.
The Devils only made one college free agent signing: goaltender Cam Johnson. Johnson was a standout at North Dakota. With not-so-hot performances from Evan Cormier, Gilles Senn, and the goalies in Binghamton in 2017-18, it made sense for the Devils to add another goalie to their system. Maybe he’ll be somebody. We shall see. He is currently with Binghamton on an amateur tryout contract; his ELC will begin in 2018-19.
Devil of the Month
I have more than a few honorable mentions, so I want to roll through those first before revealing the Devil of the Month.
First, Kyle Palmieri has provided quite a bit of scoring in March. He played in all 15 games and scored seven goals, put up five assists, and took 45 shots on net. His seven goals, 12 points, and 45 shots are all second or tied for second on the team in scoring. Palmieri has been shifted on and off the line with Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier, finishing the month on it. Mike noted on this very site, he is what started this re-building effort. This past month showcased why.
Second, Nico Hischier was more modest when it came to production with five goals and four assists in March. While he was not exactly driving play (nobody really did in March for New Jersey), Hischier continued to go from tough matchup to tough matchup and make things happen. He’s able to break away and set others up for them, he’s able to go into physical areas and make things happen, he’s showcasing his offensive talent to be more and more dangerous. The rookie sensation cracked the 50 point mark to become only the seventh ever rookie to do so in franchise history and the first to do it since Adam Henrique in 2011-12.
Third, Blake Coleman has been a sparkplug. After months of producing below what the expected goals model would suggest, Coleman burst out big time in March. He finished the month with seven goals - tied with Palmieri for the second most. Coleman scored “gritty goals” as well as beautiful ones, like his bar-down shorthanded goal against the Isles or his backhander while falling down in Pittsburgh on March 23. Coleman finished the month with the team’s best CF% at 49.13%; he has not been an anchor in 5-on-5 play. Coleman has been a fierce forechecker, a massively entertaining penalty killer, and he was a big contributor in March. Normally, he’d be the honorable mention. But there’s this other American.
The honorable mention for this month is Keith Kinkaid. Who would have ever thought this would happen? Kinkaid was absolutely terrible in the first half of this season. And he wasn’t good in January either. But Kinkaid was given the opportunity to take the #1 job while Cory Schneider was out. As Kinkaid kept thriving and Schneider faltered upon his return from injury, he took the job. So much so that Kinkaid played back-to-back sets three times - and he only lost and looked bad in one of them. According to NHL.com, Kinkaid finished March with a 92.8% even strength save percentage and a 87.7% save percentage on penalty kills. He even picked up a shutout against Los Angeles. Kinkaid faced a lot of rubber and a lot of attempts. He played in a lot of close games. The Devils needed him to be great and he really was in March. To that end, he’s the honorable mention for Devil of the Month in March.
The Devil of the Month? Easy. It’s Taylor Hall. Again.
How can it not be? Hall finished March with nine goals and eleven assists and 56 shots on net. He was by far the team leader in goals, points, and shots in the month. The Devils won one game in overtime in March: he scored that goal. The Devils needed goals to get back in the game? Hall provided it. You know how the Devils had 13 power play goals? Hall finished March with 12 power play points; he scored four of them himself and assisted on eight of them. The power play’s success in March often involved Hall. Hall had a 26-game point streak end on March 8. Since then, he was pointless in Nashville, pointless in Los Angeles, and that’s it. Hall began a new point streak on March 18 which is still on-going for eight games now. He already has five goals and seven assists in the seven games in March on his current point streak. Hall finished the month third on the team in CF% with 48.55% and second on the team in SF% with 52.75%, which is remarkable given how much he has played and how often he faced the other team’s best players. Kinkaid was great in March but Hall continues to will the Devils’ offense and the team as a whole towards the playoffs. This is why he is a legitimate candidate for the Hart Trophy. He’s just putting in work and has been all season long. March was just another month of Hall producing a lot and trying to make wins happen. Therefore, Hall is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of March 2018. Now watch the final goal he scored in the month, marvel at how glorious it was, and remember that Superstars make Superstar Plays:
The Devils played a whole month of meaningful games. The performances were not always good. The run of play did tilt against the Devils. The start of the month was bad and it meant that every loss came with the feeling that this playoff-hopeful run could end badly. But the Devils pulled out of that rut and ended the month with a good chance to make the postseason. Taylor Hall continues to amaze and while the team play was not good, there were plenty of individuals who had good to great months - especially Coleman and Kinkaid on the “great” side. The month was ultimately successful at 8-6-1. April is short on the regular season, but there’s a great chance that I’ll be writing up an April Month in Review mostly about the playoffs. The Devils made it this far. Now they just need to finish the drill (and already started that with a win over Montreal).
That was the month of March 2018 for the New Jersey Devils. What’s your take on this month? Who impressed you the most other than Superstar left winger, Taylor Hall? What did you think of how the team performed in 5-on-5 play? Were you surprised to learn how productive the power play was? Or that the PK was not so successful despite three goals? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team played in March in the comments. Thank you for reading.