New Jersey Remains On Top of Wide-Open Atlantic Division despite Three Straight Overtime Losses
By Nate Schiller
Two weeks into this lockout-shortened 48-game season, only the Devils, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the San Jose Sharks have yet to lose a game in regulation. But for a team that is technically undefeated due to the NHL’s use of the one-point overtime loss, the Devils are looking beat up after losing their last three games following the 3rd period buzzer.
After storming out to a 3-0 record to start the season, New Jersey failed to earn its first two- point result in Montreal on Sunday, in a game where they were lucky to even make it past 60 minutes, playing a terrible first period against the Habs. The Devils picked it up in their next game, when they came within four minutes of a regulation win in Boston on Tuesday. Backup netminder Johan Hedberg looked stellar for most of the game, but a soft goal late in the third would send the game to overtime, and then the shootout, where the Devils shooters failed to beat Tuukka Rask on four potentially game-winning shots.
The red and black had a chance to change their fortunes Thursday when they returned home to play their Atlantic rival New York Islanders, a hot team coming off a big 4-1 victory over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Devils looked hot early, but a power play goal from the Isles would force them to play catch-up the entire game, eventually falling 5-4 after Marty Brodeur made an ill-advised attempt to play a puck behind the net at a 4-3 disadvantage.
The root of New Jersey’s three-game overtime slide seems to be twofold. First, the Devils have gotten off to slow starts in the first period, forcing them to play catch up in the later periods instead of playing 60 minutes of balanced hockey. This was especially evident in the Montreal game, where the Devils gave up two goals in the first and failed to do much in the offensive zone, let alone get shots on net. New Jersey looked to have a chance at a fast start against the Islanders, but a Devils penalty in the first created a huge momentum shift in favor of New York.
This brings us to the second problem for the Devils: special teams. Not only have the Devils taken 92 penalty minutes in their first six games, their league-best penalty kill from last year has struggled in 2013, with only an 80% PK rate in those games. That number wasn’t helped by the Islanders, who scored three of their goals with the extra man, including Brad Boyes’ 4-on-3 game winner. Things aren’t much better on the other side of the man-advantage, the Devils convert a lowly 13.8% of PP chances, good for 8th worst in the league. Though they managed to capitalize on the man-advantage in four straight games before Thursday, New Jersey went just 1-4, 1-5, and 0-5 against the Canadiens, Bruins, and Islanders respectively.
It’s tough to blame the Devils’ struggles on one unit. Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have both shined in net with a 2.2 GAA, the scoring has been spread across all four lines with Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson picking up where they left off last year, and Coach Pete DeBoer has continued to prove himself as a quality coach, creating effective line combinations and making crucial adjustments during intermissions.
What needs to change for the Devils is their discipline. Too many of their opponents’ goals have come off of needless penalties or absent-minded turnovers, both of which provide other teams with quality scoring chances that even the great Marty Brodeur can find hard to handle. With a tough Atlantic schedule ahead, including games against the Penguins on Saturday, a rematch with the Islanders on Super Bowl Sunday, and their first matchup of the season against the rival New York Rangers on Tuesday, the Devils need to back to their hard-nosed New Jersey style of hockey, and fast. Without it, their current undefeated record could look a lot different a week from now.