The New Jersey Devils lost tonight in Chicago to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks by the score of 5-2. The Devils have now reached the Christmas holiday break, which is the unofficial mid-point of the season for most NHL teams.
New Jersey has reached the Christmas break with a record of 15-16-7 in their first 38 games and they have 44 games remaining in the regular season (www.nhl.com). Their record totals 37 points which puts the Devils right in the mix for third place in the Metropolitan Division.
In the new playoff format, the third place finish is critical because it insulates a team from having to fight for a wild card spot, which I think the Devils will be hard pressed to obtain given the competition in the Eastern Conference.
Tonight and looking ahead
The Devils were out-shot tonight by the Blackhawks by a total of 37-12 and no team in the NHL is going to win games with shot totals below 15 per game (www.si.com). So, I know the tendency of the New Jersey fan base tonight was to blame this loss on goaltender Cory Schneider, but that would not be a completely fair analysis. This game was lost because the entire team looked tired and completely lost at points out there on the ice.
The come from behind win against the Washington Capitals in their last game I believe took a lot of energy for New Jersey to achieve. In my view, we saw the by product of that expenditure of energy against the Capitals in a mostly lackluster effort in Chicago. The games coming up after the Christmas break are not going to be a walk in the park by any stretch:
Dec. 27th Columbus Blue Jackets
Dec. 28th @ New York Islanders
Dec. 31st Pittsburgh Penguins
Jan. 3rd Chicago Blackhawks
Jan. 4th @ Buffalo Sabres
The Devils play two sets of back-to-back games both are home – road splits but at least the road half of the splits are short distance trips, Long Island and Buffalo respectively, and they play the best team in the East, Pittsburgh. The Devils also have a rematch with the Blackhawks in a highly anticipated game on January 3, 2014 in Newark (www.si.com).
The Devils have 92 Goals For this season and the only teams in the Eastern Conference with a lower total are: Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, and New York Rangers (www.si.com).
Conversely, New Jersey has 99 Goals Allowed this season, and the only teams allowing less goals in the Eastern Conference are: Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Montreal Canadiens (www.nhl.com).
Those two statistical areas are very revealing as to the status of this New Jersey Devils team at this point. They have not scored very many goals, but they have not allowed that many goals, so they have been able to hang around in several close games as evidenced in their 7 OT losses.
It is too easy to state from my vantage point that the team needs to score more often and play better defensively as well as gain more consistent goaltending performance from Cory Schneider. The real problem with this team, and the root issue is that of consistency.
New Jersey needs to play more consistent hockey across all facets of the game in order to take that next step as a team. The silver lining here in all of this is that I believe that they can take that step, and the Devils have lost many key players to injuries. When those players return, it will be like this roster added players, and they should see a performance upgrade at that point.
The Devils also have healthy players who have underperformed, such as Adam Henrique and Steve Bernier, both have played in all 38 games. Henrique has just 6 goals and 14 points, Bernier has a paltry 3 goals and 8 points (www.si.com). New Jersey also needs Travis Zajac to ramp up his goal scoring, he has 6 goals and 17 points in 36 games so far this season. Those three players are talented and quite capable of supplying more offense to this team.
The rest of the way
The Devils are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games and the team has a record of 8-11-3 on the road and 7-5-4 at home in Prudential Center. The rest of the way this season, with roughly half the season remaining if they continued that pace on the road and lost 5 to 7 more games at home, New Jersey is looking at a 36 or 37 projected win total.
That probably will not be enough wins to keep the Devils in position for a playoff spot in the tight Eastern Conference, so they have to focus and make some adjustments to convert some victories in the second half of this season. We have seen the Devils start slow before, and finish with a flourish. I hope that history repeats itself this season.