Devils Must Fix Slow Starts to Have Playoff Success

The New Jersey Devils were badly outplayed in the first period of two recent games against the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens. If not for great goaltending, especially against the Canadiens, the Devils may have found themselves in an early hole heading into the first intermission. However, they managed to escape, either tied or leading by one, thanks to Akira Schmid and Vitek Vanecek.

The Devils are outscoring their opponents 20-13 in the first period this season, but have not looked particularly great while doing so. At the end of the day, results are all that matters, but if New Jersey wants to be a true playoff contender, it needs to have quicker starts.

Devils’ Recent 1st Period Struggles

The Devils were lucky to escape the first period Saturday (Nov. 12) against the Coyotes after being outshot seven to six and out-chanced five to three in the first frame. The Coyotes also had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 60.71 percent to the Devils’ 39.29 percent, which measures total shot attempts for versus total shot attempts against. This signifies that Arizona controlled 60 percent of puck possession in the first 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, New Jersey took a 2-1 lead into the locker room before tacking on two more goals in the second period to win 4-2. However, their first-period struggles continued when they visited Montreal on Tuesday (Nov. 15.)

Dougie Hamilton New Jersey Devils
Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Canadiens came out flying, outshooting the Devils 15-11 in the first period, and earned a 56.1 CF% compared to the Devils’ 43.9 CF% and out-chanced the Devils 11 to nine. Vanecek held the Canadiens to no goals in the first period, even though their expect goals (xGF) was 1.12 to the Devils’ 0.88.

They Devils’ slow start didn’t hurt them here either as they went on to throttle the Canadiens 5-1 in a very lopsided victory. The Devils responded against the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday (Nov. 17) and Ottawa Senators Saturday (Nov. 19,) where they won the CF% and xGF battle in both first periods, but then they regressed in Monday’s (Nov. 21) game against the Edmonton Oilers, recording another subpar first period..

Related: 5 Takeaways From Devils’ 5-1 Win Over The Canadiens

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Fueled by two power-play opportunities, the Oilers earned a 59.46 CF% in the first period against the Devils and owned 66.67 percent of the high-danger scoring chances. Edmonton also recorded a 64.56 xGF%, but the score remained 1-1 after the first period. The Devils were lucky to escape tied.

Teams That Score 1st Win More Often

Teams that scored first last season were 953-318-130, including the regular season and playoffs. Although the Devils have only given up the first goal in six of their first 19 games, when they’re outplayed, it’s mostly in the first period. Just because this hasn’t burned them yet, doesn’t mean it won’t in the near future. Good teams start fast and keep their foot on the gas until the final whistle.

With all due respect to the Canadiens and Coyotes, they aren’t playoff-caliber teams, and when the Devils start slow against stronger competition, they will be punished for it. They can’t always rely on their strong second and third-period performances to mount a game-winning comeback.

New Jersey hasn’t had issues finishing strong as they rank 14th in the NHL with 23 goals scored in the third period and second in the NHL with only 12 goals against in the third – what plagued the Devils last season has suddenly become one of their strengths. They are 13-0 when entering the third period with a lead this season.

Related: Devils’ New Mentality on Display During Road Trip

Around 30 percent of last year’s playoff games were decided by one goal, and only three teams – the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals – had losing records when leading after the first period. Starting fast is crucial for playoff success and the Devils need to improve on this if they hope to make some noise in the postseason.

Ruff Showing Slight Concern

If the Devils can piece together some first periods that mirror their second and third periods, they will be much better equipped to compete down the stretch. It’s not much of a concern, since there have only been a handful of games where they’ve experienced these struggles, but it caught head coach Lindy Ruff’s attention.

“We were really loose in the first period and traded chances,” Ruff said after the Devils’ win in Montreal. “We weren’t really committed to getting above the puck and preventing opportunities…both goalies made big saves.”

Lindy Ruff New Jersey Devils
Lindy Ruff, Head Coach of the New Jersey Devils (Kristy Flannery / The Hockey Writers)

New Jersey bounced back by outscoring the Canadiens 3-1 in the second period. The Devils are tied for second in the NHL with 27 goals scored in the second period and are tied for 13th with only 19 goals against in the middle frames. Although their strong finish has masked some of their first-period struggles, stronger opponents are more likely to expose these issues.

Ruff has made it clear that he doesn’t want his team to think too far ahead, but once the Devils get into the bulk of their schedule, slow starts may turn into an Achilles heel for them. It’s hard to complain about a team in second place in the NHL and on the brink of setting a franchise record, but if there are any negatives, this is it. We’ll see how Ruff adjusts to ensure that his team has stronger first periods moving forward.

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