Going Inside The New Jersey Devils’ February Surge

The New Jersey Devils have been the NHL’s most significant story in February. As much as the Detroit Red Wings’ home win streak has earned its place in the history books, there’s no story more likely to impact what we see in late April or May than the surge the Devils have put on. Coming from outside the playoff picture, they’ve zoomed up the ladder to be the #4 seed in the East if the postseason began today. New Jersey is tied with Boston for the second-best point total in the conference. And while the 4 thru 7 spots are fluid enough that they can change every few days, the Devils are a comfortable nine points up on the teams fighting to get into the playoffs. Is the surge for real, or is the flavor of the month? The SportsNotebook goes inside the New Jersey Devils.

New Jersey ranks in the middle of the NHL in both goals scored and goals against, but they get there in considerably different ways. This is not an offense that excels by raw volume of shots. The Devils’ are in the lower echelon of the league when it comes to generating attacks on opposing goaltenders, and they have no real signature scorer. While Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, along with maybe David Clarkson, are the offensive leaders, none would be focal points on the offense of most other playoff teams. On the flip side, the defense does an outstanding job in the area of shot prevention and keeping the jobs of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg a little easier in goal. Brodeur is no longer the elite star he was when he led this team to the Stanley Cup in 1995, and his 90.4% save rate isn’t great—but he is playing his best right now.

After a three-game home losing streak to Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo, there was no indication the Devils were about to take off. But that’s what happened when the homestand continued against the rival New York Rangers. The Devils, whose power play is a little below average, got a goal with the extra man, then saw Clarkson tie the game with less than a minute left, and then won a shootout. They haven’t looked back since.

Montreal came to town next, and while Jersey fell behind 2-0 and were outshot 30-22, they got a pair of goals from Parise, along with Clarkson on the power play and rallied for the win. They made the short trip to Philly and came blazing out of the gate with three goals in the first, three more in the second and hung on for the 6-4 win. The defensive meltdown in the third certainly doesn’t look good, nor does losing shots 41-31, but the power play was again in high gear, scoring three times. A home win over Pittsburgh was the second straight night for Kovalchuk to both score and have two assists, while the team as a whole was outshot.

On February 7, two days after the Jersey/NYC area had seen the Giants bring home the Super Bowl title, the Devils and Rangers hooked up in Madison Square Garden. The game’s only goal came on a power play effort from Clarkson, and even losing shots 30-22 couldn’t stop Brodeur from getting the shutout Maybe it was a hangover from beating the archrival and #1 team in the East, but Jersey hit a little speed bump the next two games. They lost home dates to St. Louis and Florida, though a shootout in the former game still got them a point. In the Florida loss, the Devils only got one power play chance and won shots 28-20, but still lost 3-1.

Kovalchuk put the team on his back in Buffalo for Valentine’s Day, scoring in the first off the power play and then completing his hattrick in the third with a pair of goals that broke open a tie game. The Devils narrowly escaped a bad Anaheim team at home, going to the shootout for a 3-2 win. They gave up a late third period goal, lost shots by double-digits and had just one power play chance. Then on February 19 in Montreal, the Devils played their cleanest game of this stretch. They didn’t need a power play or Kovalchuk to get any of their three goals and the game ended 3-1. Two nights ago, they beat Toronto 4-3 in overtime, a game they led 2-0 early and 3-2 late before Maple Leaf forward Phil Kessel forced the extra session.

What stands out to me in going through this streak is first off, how dependent this offense is on the power play. This is an anomaly, because the Devils only rank 18th in the league overall here. It’s reasonable to think they will keep winning special teams’ battles as a whole, because the penalty kill team is one of the league’s best. But over the long haul, a team needs to be effective in 5-on-5 play and New Jersey ranks only 21s in this area.

The correlation of shots to goals is just completely inverted on this team and it would seem at least partly traceable to the power play situation. It seems not to matter if the Devils get a lot of shots, what matters is that they come with the man advantage. There’s no mystery here, as its better to get a fewer number of shots that are high in quality, rather than wildly launching pucks at goaltenders. That works about as well as young flamethrowing pitcher just hurling straight heat at big-league hitters. It looks nice and at lower levels it even works, but winning at the highest level requires a little bit more finesse. If that’s what Jersey is doing, more power to them (no pun intended). But I still have to say you rarely see the kind of disparity between shots and goals the Devils exhibit on both sides of the ice.

New Jersey’s current run has made a playoff berth secure, as we move toward the regular season’s final quarter, but I don’t see this win streak as a harbinger of things to come. The dependence on the power play and on the scoring of Kovalchuk, who will never be confused with Evgeni Malkin, is not a sustainable formula and the Devils end up no better than a 7-seed when the postseason begins.