Devils End 2016 with Sour Taste

by | Dec 31, 2016

If the cliche line of “new year, new me” extends to the 30 NHL clubs, then there may be no team more hopeful for the clock striking midnight and into the new year than the Devils, who closed out 2016 with an ugly 6-2 loss at home to Washington.

Saturday afternoon’s showing at the Rock wasn’t completely out of what has become the ordinary. The Capitals led 2-0 after a first period in which John Moore was stretchered off after a hit behind the Devils’ from Tom Wilson. No penalty was called on the play and Moore was released from a local hospital following the conclusion of the game, according to head coach John Hynes.

After a series of penalties in the second forced an unusual 3-on-3 sequence in regulation, Kyle Palmieri scored to give New Jersey some life. That spark lasted just over six minutes before Washington scored three times in the second with goals from T. J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin and Justin Williams, respectively.

The third period was all but formality for the lopsided till. Beau Bennett’s score early in the period was followed up by a sixth Washington goal to send both teams into the new year–on sour terms of the Devils.

December’s been a particularly tricky month for New Jersey, going 4-9-2 and allowing four or more goals in 10 of 15 contests. The team that made some acquisitions, most notably Taylor Hall, to address their scoring woes, remains among the basement teams in the league and in goals scored. What’s even more concerning? They’re among the leaders in goals allowed–and all-star goalie Cory Schneider is having an uncharacteristically poor season, allowing four or more goals in 11 of 27 games this season. His most recent stretch has been less than encouraging going 2-6-2 with a .887 save percentage.

Earlier this month Devils GM challenged his team to “play (expletive) harder!” The next night they skated off to a 4-0 victory at home over the Flyers. The next night they were defeated 4-1 in Pittsburgh. That same pattern repeated itself this week when following a gutsy 2-1 shootout victory in Washington, the team responded by laying down the next game.

Consistency has been an issue. The Devils have earned points in back-to-back games just once since a pre-Thanskgiving five-game win streak. For large stretches since, they’ve been outshot by lump sums and outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. This plus playing in the red-hot Metropolitan Division, headlined by the defending cup champion Penguins and the surprising upstart Blue Jackets among others makes for a challenging route to Stanley Cup playoff contention, even with more than three months left in the regular season.

If there’s reason to believe in 2017 it might come in the form of some home cooking. The Devils, who were among the league leaders in road games play 26 of their remaining 45 games at Prudential Center, a building they started hot in with 7-straight wins before dropping three of their last four at home.

New Jersey can also take solace in the fact that a healthy Taylor Hall can only go up from here. So far, he’s got 23 points in 27 games in his new sweater. Other than that, it’s a crap shoot. Can the Devils get some offense from their secondary scorers? A problem that haunted the low-scoring club a season ago. So far, Nick Lappin, an AHL call up, has been the only regular bottom-sixer who has scored more than two goals, though he’s quieted down since his strong start with just one point in his last 13 games.

Defensively, it’s been a giant leap forward for third-year defenseman, Damon Severson. But as a core, there’s been no shortage of struggles, averaging over 30 shots allowed per game. If Shero is making calls, one would think it’s for help on the back end.

And finally goaltending, if there’s any chance that 2017 can see a new-look Devils, they’ll need the Schneider from season’s past alongside backup Keith Kinkaid, who until Saturday has done well when called upon. Scott Wedgewood remains on the mend following shoulder surgery and is not expected to see any time up with the big club. Barring injury, the tandem now will remain in place for the balance of the season. So, sink or swim.

Meanwhile, head coach John Hynes doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy of losing his job. The second-year bench boss did well a season ago with a less than ideal roster, but they worked hard enough to surpass expectations. Even if they weren’t expected to take a giant leap forward, this is certainly a step back. In 2010-11 the Devils were at rock bottom and canned John MacLean as head coach–that doesn’t appear to be in the fold now. Finding a way out of this troubling predicament will be one of his biggest tasks since being hired.

New Jersey will be back at it on Monday when they host the Bruins. No status yet on the availability of Moore or Hall, who missed his second-straight game on Saturday.

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