The New Jersey Devils season has been marked by their struggle in games which go beyond regulation time into overtime or the penalty shootout. The team has reached the Olympic break and has completed about 70% of their regular season. New Jersey has a record through 59 games of 24 wins, 22 losses, and 13 overtime losses for a total of 61 points.
The overtime losses, which provide the team with one point in the standings, have been both a blessing and a curse for the Devils this season. New Jersey has 13 overtime losses which is the most in the Eastern Conference and the second highest total in the NHL next to the Chicago Blackhawks who have 14.
On one hand, those points have allowed the Devils to hang around in the division standings as well as the race for one of the wild card playoff spots in the new format. On the other hand, conversion of some of those overtime/shootout losses would have boosted New Jersey into a much better position in the standings.
In watching this team, I am not sure what the reason is for the breakdowns late in these games and in the overtime sessions. I am not sure if it is conditioning, players taking on more ice time due to key injuries on the team, or if it is a mental situation where they emotionally let down in those spots. The fact remains that it has been the Achilles heel of this team in the 2013-14 season.
Shutdown in the Shootout
A closer look at the results this season reveals that the Devils have not won a single game that has gone through overtime and into the deciding penalty shootout. The Devils have been shut down in the shootout by a combination of factors:
- Strong goaltending by the opposing team
- Poor decisions by Devils shooters
- Injuries to key offensive players
- Unorthodox ordering of the shooters by the coaching staff
- Bad luck
Some of these factors can be dealt with and changed, and other factors cannot. The inclusion of bad luck is a real factor in some of these shootouts where the puck bounced wrong or went off a post. If those pucks bounce another way, this losing streak in the shootout does not exist.
The order of the shooters is an area where many fans, myself included, have taken New Jersey Head Coach Pete DeBoer to task in the past. He makes some very unorthodox decisions where a player who is on a hot streak will sit out the shootout, and conversely players who are in a slump have been included in the shootout order. These decisions have driven Devils fans into tirades of frustration on social media.
The right order of the shooters, or the right mix of players in those scenarios, and the Devils may have won a few of those shootout games. If they converted less than half their shootout losses into wins, for the sake of argument, if they had three shootout wins they would be tied with the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division at this point in the season.
Sudden Death Disaster
The Devils have had many problems in the sudden death overtime period as well. They have 5 wins in overtime games against the 13 overtime losses. Those struggles can be tied to several factors, but in my observation of their play this season, the overall theme of their play in overtime is pretty conservative.
Now, this conservative trend is also a function of the system they play within. DeBoer’s system is defensive-minded with a strong emphasis on the forecheck. We, as fans, all know that this team is going to be in their fair share of close games because of the system they play. I was just hoping that they would have come out on the winning side of more of these overtime games.
The Devils have trouble scoring goals to begin with, then you factor in the 4-on-4 ice time in overtime, and for some teams that opens up the ice for more offensive opportunities. However, for the most part, as evidenced by their record, the Devils struggle in those situations. They have brought up an extra skater to press for the sudden death game-ending goal, but they have lost overtime games doing that when the opposing team breaks out on an odd-man rush against them.
The Devils could fix some of the overtime haplessness by approaching their opportunities in overtime very similarly to the previous games this season against the Dallas Stars and the Edmonton Oilers. In those games, the Devils stayed within their system but played the puck aggressively, and created high quality scoring chances through precision passing and great skating.
The Final Minute
The other big criticism of the Devils this season is that they cannot hold a lead late in games. On several occasions, the Devils go from being in the lead to allowing the tying goal with less than two minutes left in regulation. The team follows that up with, more often than not, losing that game in overtime or the penalty shootout.
New Jersey does struggle to hold the lead, and we as fans know how maddening that can be. I know the players are frustrated with it as well, given their reactions and comments to the media. The races in the divisions and the wild card races are all very tight, points are so hard to earn, and that is what makes the difference between the results in overtime so crucial.
The common thread in many of the Devils problems with conceding the lead in these games is the use of the extra skater by the opposition when they pull their goaltender in the closing minutes. This factor is rather obvious if you go back and review the scenarios of how these games reached a tie score at the end of regulation.
New Jersey can make adjustments to their defensive structure in those scenarios when they return from the Olympic break. Those situations can be cleaned up by keeping the action against the boards, maintaining their defensive responsibilities, making sure the seams are covered, and clearing deflected shots out of their defensive zone with more efficiency.
All of these methods can be utilized to improve the play of the team in protecting leads late in close games, and to converting these trips to overtime or the penalty shootout into much needed victories. The Devils are in position to make a run at the playoffs and they need all the points they can get to make it. The ability to win more games after regulation time will go a long way toward their goal of making the playoffs this season.