The Devils have been undeniably dominant over their first 25 games overall. The 41 points they have collected have them sitting atop the league standings and have far outpaced any previous points total for a Devils team through 25 games. All told, there really are not many things to criticize about the team, aside from a stray off night from a player here or there. They comfortably lead the league in expected goals share at 5-on-5 and in all situations, they lead the league in 5v5 goals share (and are second behind Bostin in all situations), and they have been getting great performances all over the lineup.
A minor trend has emerged amidst all of the success though, and it’s that the Devils seem to start a bit slow out of the gate in a lot of their games, especially recently. The question is whether this is cause for much of any concern, or if it’s even really an identifiable trend in the first place. If the Devils do start slow, it hasn’t really hurt them to this point, with the team sitting on a somewhat silly 7-1-1 record when their opponent scores first. For those keeping score at home, the Devils points percentage when the other team scores first (.833) is currently slightly higher than their record when they open the scoring (13-3-0, .813 pts%).
A team showing that they are undaunted by falling behind on the scoreboard is a great thing to see and the Devils have shown throughout their big run to open this season that they are resilient and very capable of imposing their will on teams when they find their stride. Still, though, that 7-1-1 trend with the other team jumping out front is unlikely to hold up forever, and while it’s tough to poke holes in the success for a team operating at a 134-point pace, the slow-ish starts have been a little bit of a persistent issue of late for this team. The concern grew on Saturday night when the Devils extended a sluggish opening 10 or 20 minutes into a sluggish opening 30 minutes against a pretty lousy Flyers team.
Let’s take the last six games going back to the Maple Leafs tilt before Thanksgiving and examine the starts we’ve been seeing from the team recently. The Devils have been a team that, particularly leading up to this recent stretch, was dominating the expected goals category every night (not to mention the actual goals as well). In three of their last six games, though, the team has been battered in expected goals in the opening frame, collecting just 32.4%, 24.6%, and 33.2% of the expected goals in the games against the Leafs, Capitals, and Flyers. That most recent Flyers effort is the most eyebrow-raising, of course, since the Flyers stink out loud and continued to run over the Devils until well into the second period in the run of play. Games will ebb and flow and it’s hard to expect the Devils to dominate every period of hockey, but if the goaltending starts to falter, those sluggish starts will become all the more troublesome as the Devils are forced to dig out of holes on the scoreboard.
Speaking of which, the Devils have also fallen behind on the scoreboard several times of late, forcing themselves to chase the game. In the same six games mentioned above, the Devils have spotted their opponent a two-goal lead on three separate occasions. Put together with the early struggles in the run of play and the Devils have been pinned back consistently in the first period and/or behind 2-0 in five of their past six games. The Devils are 4-1-1 in that stretch, so they have typically been able to turn the tide in these games at some point, but with the Devils trying to emerge from many years of failure, the focus has been not just on success, but truly sustainable success. The past few games for the Devils have been okay overall, with the team rebounding with that aforementioned resilience, but they are more susceptible to an inevitable dip in the percentages when you consider the rocky starts in these games.
To wit, three of the team’s four worst 5v5 expected goals performances have come in the last four games (WAS, NYR, PHI). Now, the fact that the fourth worst 5v5 expected goals performance of the year (11/28 vs NYR) ended up at a 50/50 split makes it clear that the sky isn’t exactly falling in New Jersey, but it’s still of note that a little bit of a trend has appeared. The Devils will have to do some of course correcting on the fly to get back into a form more reflective of their place in the standings.
Digging into the roster, one of the common threads for the last four games has been that the top pairing has struggled, more specifically Jonas Siegenthaler, who has had a rough go and even disappeared from the ice for the final 6 or 7 minutes of the Rangers game at a time when you’d most expect him to be out there with a one-goal lead. One has to wonder if Siegenthaler, who has been fantastic and one of the Devils’ somewhat unsung heroes to this point in the season, is nursing an injury of some sort, given the radical reversal in results from his dominant form over the season’s first 20 games. Before the last four games, Siegenthaler had three games the entire season where he finished below 50% in 5v5 expected goals. Now he has four under 50% in his last four games, including three under 32% where the Devils have been pounded with him on the ice. Ruff pretty much had a point-blank ‘no’ when he was asked if Siegenthaler had an injury after the Rangers game, but it’s tough to interpret the past week-plus for him in many other ways.
Siegenthaler’s struggles are tough to dismiss as a factor, but the Devils will need to find ways to adjust to downturns (or injuries) for important players to keep playing at a high level. The pace they set during the 13-game win streak earlier was obviously not going to be sustainable forever, but they should also be aiming higher than the relatively middling hockey (in spite of the still-good record) that they have been playing over the past week or so. The Devils do have the talent to make lightning strike and have bad 10-, 20-, or even 30-minute stretch disappear in almost an instant, but they also should not make a habit of leaning on that ability, as the more complete teams around the league are more likely to make them pay for failing to get out of the gate at starts of games.