The Devils have reached the halfway mark in their season, as well as the bye week, at a low point. With five straight losses, including Sunday's 5-4 shootout in Brooklyn against the Islanders, New Jersey will return to action at home on Saturday against Philadelphia trying to win for the first time in two and a half weeks.
Every season has highs and lows, though, and the Devils have had plenty of the former on their way to hitting the break in second place in the rugged Metropolitan Division, three points behind the Capitals. Despite the losing streak to close it, the first half of the season was a positive one.
"I think the confidence is high, because we've proven that we can play with any team," said Taylor Hall, whose 15 goals and 27 assists lead the Devils. "We outshot [the Islanders] 21-10 in the first period. We should've been up two or three, but that's the way it's going right now. … There's always going to be ups and downs during a season. It's not like we're getting blown out. It's not like we're not in games. It's just the little things that we're struggling at."
One thing the Devils have been having a hard time with is holding leads. Sunday's contest saw New Jersey cough up a 4-2 lead in the third period. The losing streak began with a blown two-goal lead against the Sabres, and also included a lead that got away in Dallas.
"My biggest assessment is we really have and learn and dig in on how to win," Devils coach John Hynes said. "How do you win? How do you win tight games? That's our biggest challenge right now."
The operative part of that is "right now," because while the Devils have held leads in eight of their 19 total losses, and have lost by more than one goal only once during their current skid, they have a solid record of 11-2-8 in one-goal games, including a 3-4 mark in shootouts.
The Devils have won 11 of their 20 other games, while establishing solid home-ice advantage, going 12-5-3 record at Prudential Center, and picking up points in 15 of 21 road games with a 10-6-5 record. There is a solid foundation to build on in the second half of the season for a team whose expectations have grown since the start of the campaign in October.
"We can be proud of our start, but we can't be blinded by it," said defenseman John Moore, who is averaging a career-high 20:07 of ice time per game and has tallied six goals with six assists. "We need to look forward and really get up for these next couple of games. I think, just managing the game, knowing that a simple play, whether that's getting a puck out, whether that's taking a hit, whether that's not retaliating, these are things that are of tremendous weight, these are plays that matter, these are plays that ultimately decide winning or losing, and it's hard for guys to get that, but we need to understand that moving forward. Our focus cannot waver. We need to make sure we're sticking to our system and right on the game plan for a full 60."
An important thing, and a reason to believe that New Jersey will be able to do just that is that Moore sounds a lot like an extension of his coach. The Devils, throughout the season, and even before, have hewn closely to Hynes' message and philosophy. With their cohesion as a unit established, and a largely successful first half of the season behind them, they can move on to taking the next step of becoming not just hard to play, but hard to beat.
"This is the biggest challenge for us now," Hynes said. "Coming into training camp, it was establishing an identity, and how we want to play, and a buy-in to that, and we did that. Then, it was getting some wins and getting some momentum, and we did that. Now, we're in a stretch where we don't have a lot of guys that have been there before. We have young guys, we have other guys that haven't won in a while. So, now, when you get into these situations here, you've got a 4-2 lead, you've got to learn how to lock it down and understand that the little differences in the game make a big difference. That's what's challenged us, whether it's (Sunday), that was one situation, Dallas was another situation, St. Louis was another situation. So, when you look at it, we've found a way to scratch and claw and get some points. It's good that we're competitively involved in games, but it's a fine line, and right now, this is really what we're going through, and we've got to rectify that going forward."