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Third Periods Have Truly Plagued the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils

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Nearly two months into this season and it is clear that the New Jersey Devils have been plagued by the third period in many of their games. This post goes into how bad it has been, their on-ice stats in third periods, and ideas as to why it has been so bad.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils
The third period has been a real problematic one for the Devils this season.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

On Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils did something for the first time this season in their 5-1 win over Detroit. They were not winning when they went into the third period, and then out-scored opponent in the third period at home for the first time this season. It was the Devils’ 22nd game of the season and they finally won a game outright in the third period without having a lead to start that period. It was also the first game where the Devils scored more than two goals in a third period all season as well. That I am pointing those facts out speaks to the larger truth that the third period has been problematic so far this season for the New Jersey Devils.

Third Periods: As Bad As or Worse Than You Think

After that win over Detroit, the Devils are fifteenth out of sixteen teams in the Eastern Conference. Their 8-10-4 is one of the worst in the league. Yet, despite their poor record, the Devils have not been blasted on the scoreboard in the first two periods. The Devils have entered third period of their games trailing by two or more goals only four times this season. They have either led after two periods, were tied after two periods, or were only trailing by one goal - which is still a winnable situation, it is only a one goal deficit - in their other 18 games this season. However, the Devils have been wrecked in the final frame in regulation throughout the season so far. Here is a game-by-game breakdown of each situation. I pulled the data from the essential Natural Stat Trick.

The Devils before, during, and after third periods in 2019-20
The Devils before, during, and after third periods in 2019-20
Natural Stat Trick

The Devils have led in the game heading into the third period eight times this season. They were out-scored in the third period in five of them, which led to two regulation losses, an overtime loss, and a regulation loss. Winning only 50% of the games despite leading after 40 minutes is terrible to witness and terrible in the bigger picture of looking at a season. The six games where the Devils were tied after two periods ended with a record of 3-1-2. That is not bad but that could have been better. Comebacks from being down one goal after two periods has been rare. The Devils have only managed it once this season when they prevailed against Montreal on November 16. Even that game required a big-time video review to determine that, no, a Montreal player cannot score from humping a puck over the goal line. Anything worse than a one goal deficit, while not that common this season, ended with a regulation loss.

The scoring specific to the third period is shockingly worse. The Devils have only out-scored their opponents four times in third periods this season. The good news is that those four times have all led to wins. Even in those, it is not all perfect. Only in the October win over Our Hated Rivals did the Devils build on their lead that they had going into the third period. In the other three cases, the Devils were tied (two times) or down only one (one time). It has been much more common for the Devils to be out-scored in the third period, which has led to 11 losing results and only one win: the November 15 game over Pittsburgh.

This is astonishing to see. There have been rough periods in past seasons. While there are 60 games left in the Devils’ season, enough games against varying opponents have been played to start seeing patterns. This is not a case of a couple bad games in a row. It has happened throughout the season. The Devils have been out-scored by a ridiculous 14 to 30 across all of their third periods. It would be one thing if the Devils were being blown out more often and had a similarly negative goal differential in the other two periods. However, that is not the case. The goal differential for the Devils’ first two periods is just -4 at 41 to 45. Take out that awful game against Buffalo and it is even. The third periods have truly been an issue for this season’s squad.

Third Period On-Ice Stats: Not as Bad As You Think??

What is more confusing is that the team’s on-ice stats in the third period are not so terrible. It has been in some games but it not so across the board. As I used Natural Stat Trick to find the scores, I used the site to pull the Corsi (shooting attempt), shots, and expect goal counts both for and against the Devils in 5-on-5 and all situation play for each third period this season. I expected to see the Devils to get pounded in the run of play to go along with the massive goal differential of -16. The truth is more complicated.

Devils 5-on-5 and All Situation Corsi, shots, and expected goals in third periods in 2019-20
Devils 5-on-5 and All Situation Corsi, shots, and expected goals in third periods in 2019-20
Natural Stat Trick

The opposition names in color reflect the score when the game headed into the third period. Green means the Devils were leading, white means the Devils were tied, orange means they were trailing by one, and red means they were trailing by two or more. What I found that across all 22 games the Devils were actually ahead of their opposition in shots, behind in attempts, and not that far off but still behind in expected goal differential. Game by game, there is a lot of variation. There have been third periods where the Devils, on paper, hung or even beat their opposition in attempts, shots, and expected goals - and gave up a bunch of goals on their way to a loss. Such as the recent 1-4 loss to Pittsburgh on November 22. There have been third periods where the Devils dominated the run of play but not necessarily the score, such as the 6-7 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on October 30 or the eventual shootout loss to Edmonton on October 10 (for a goal that should have been disallowed in my view but whatever). And there have been third periods where the Devils were just plain dominated such as the Vancouver game on October 19 (Blackwood won that one), Pittsburgh on November 15 (Blackwood won that one), and Ottawa on November 13 (nope). Overall, though, the Devils have been not been stomped all over by so many teams in the run of play. It is not great by any means, there is definitely room for improvement. But it does not fall in line with the scoreboard domination against the Devils in these periods.

A couple of confounding factors. First, score effects are a thing. Generally, a team that is losing will attack more often since they have more incentive to be aggressive and hope to get a goal or two (or more) to get something out of the game. As the Devils have blown games in third periods sometimes early in the period, that allowed enough time for them to at least attempt a bit more. Second, attempts, shots, and expected goals only state so much. Neither really takes into account whether a defenseman is not covering someone, whether a Devil turned the puck over and made everyone groan in the process, or whether the goalie had a fair chance or not. It’s either there was an attempt recorded, a shot was recorded as being on target, and the expected goals model provides its value based on the location and type of shot. So there could be other factors at play that are clear if you watch the tape or remember seeing the third period meltdowns live that are not in these stats themselves. Third, the run of play does not really take into account one of the most crucial aspect of a team’s success: how well they move the puck. In a lot of these games and in these third periods, the Devils were clearly not in the mindset of a comeback and so their struggles at zone exits, breakouts, and offensive zone passes just continued or worsened. They may have put up attempts and shots but it was not necessarily smooth, crisp, or with the intensity needed to make a real comeback effort. That all stated, that the Devils are still not getting steamrolled in either category over all 22 games suggests that their play on the ice in the third period is not as bad as the score would suggest.

Four Ideas Causing These Bad Third Periods

So why are the third periods so bad? I have a couple of ideas although none really stand out as an issue so prevalent that the Devils need to prioritize addressing it.

Culprit number one would be the goaltending by this viewpoint. We cannot ignore that the goaltending is not an issue at all with a team save percentage of 83.7% in third period play. Or that they allowed 30 goals with an expected goals against count of a bit over 16. I do not think it is an accident that some of the Devils’ recent wins have went along with Mackenzie Blackwood or Louis Domingue playing great in the crease. In Blackwood’s case, he was practically standing on his head as the Devils tried to escape the third period with as few goals allowed while also not providing much goal support. Even so, the 30 goals allowed in 22 third periods is shared a lot by Mr. Blackwood as he was in 16 of those 22 third periods. That suggests he could be much better. With Cory Schneider dumped to Binghamton, even more focus will be on the young goalie. At the same time, I feel this is somewhat unfair to the goaltenders. I have not looked at all 30 goals a second time but I would be kind of shocked if most of them were tissue-paper soft ones that most goalies would have stopped. I think the Devils really need to get results with their goaltenders playing decently instead of being amazing. Still, improvement here would really turn the tide on third periods plaguing the Devils.

This leads to culprit number two: the offense. The Devils have been poor at creating offense in general, as I pointed out in my recent post on Friday. While they may out-shoot their opponents collectively in third periods, they are out-attempted and the expected goals model shows them being out performed there while also putting up a low amount. Go back to that summary chart and notice that a lot of these third period losses are only by a goal or two. Timing of the goals against aside, those are not insurmountable within a period in general. Rather than holding onto a lead or a tied score for dear life, the Devils could help themselves greatly by pushing the play forward more often and finishing more of those plays. Even if it does not happen in the third period specifically, more goals will give the Devils more of a cushion as the game enters the final twenty minutes of regulation. Yes, the 2019-20 Devils have blown some big leads. However, they have only done so once in this month so far. It was not as common or heartbreaking as the ones back in October. Extra insurance may turn out to be just that - extra and the Devils could definitely use as much as they can get. They just need to be able to create more situations where they can get it at all.

Another potential issue that has led to this are special teams. Notice that the expected goals count for third periods between 5-on-5 and all situations can dramatically. Power plays and penalty kills can do that. The Devils have not been very successful at either this season. It is not a coincidence that some of their recent wins have happened with the power play getting a success or the penalty kill not getting lit up. As the Devils have issues with creating a significant amount of offensive opportunities in 5-on-5, it makes special teams success that much more valuable. If the Devils can even only improve their power play to attack more and subsequently score more, then that will help the overall cause and could make their third periods less of a problem.

Fourth, we cannot ignore the non-statistical elephant in the room: the mindset of the team. I understand the coaches are not on the ice. However, part of the job of the coaching staff is to prepare players for games and make adjustments in the middle of them. Being able to motivate the team is a big part of both. It is crushing that the Devils have only been really behind the proverbial eight ball in four of their 22 games after two periods and then proceed to lose plenty of games in the third period. When I see a team seemingly play the game out in the third period even if it is a tied game or the Devils are down one, that suggests to me that there are issues with the team’s mentality. When players are speaking to the media after another decisive loss that a bad third period contributed to like Zajac did after the Pittsburgh game, that suggests some issues with their confidence. This is also a fault of team leadership, whether it is from official captain Andy Greene or locker-room leaders that may not have a letter. The players are on the ice and can make a difference. That they have been rolled over so much in third periods after 22 games means they are not doing enough. That’s on them as well as the coaching staff.

I think all four play a role somewhat. That there are multiple issues leading to this also explains why the Devils are at 8-10-4 and many are not convinced they can turn it around anytime soon.

Your Take

That is how I currently see the third period problems plaguing the New Jersey Devils this season. It is crystal clear that the third period has been a bad one for the Devils over their season so far. And it has contributed greatly to their poor 8-10-4 record. Unfortunately, I do not have a real grasp on why the third periods have been so bad, much less what could be solutions as to what the Devils can do about it.

Perhaps you have a take or a suggestion that I may have missed or undersold as being as a cause. Why do you think the Devils have been so bad in third periods this season? What would you do for the Devils to be better at third periods? Can the Devils not be so bad in third periods going forward in this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ play in the third period in the comments. Thank you for reading.