Sooner or later you may have noticed a new addition to the NHL schedule this season, the oddly named concept of the bye week – a five-day break each team gets at some point during the season where teams can’t practice until the day before the bye ends, presumably collectively bargained by the players’ union to give its constituents a second long scheduled break from hockey aside from the All-Star weekend (which to be fair not everyone actually has ‘off’). Calling it a bye week is a bit silly since it’s a five-day span between games but the NHL’s just trying to piggyback on NFL lingo. That said, I can understand the principle a long in-season break from the perspective of the forty-four or however many All-Stars that don’t actually get All-Star weekend off. What I don’t understand is why some teams including the Devils get their so-called bye week so close to All-Star weekend.
With the All-Star break shutting down hockey from the 27th to the 30th in January, it’s honestly a bit ridiculous the Devils get their bye only a week after that, which leads to playing a grand total of four games in sixteen days. Honestly that’s ridiculous, it would be like giving an NFL team two byes in a three week span, and it’s just another indiginty to heap on a schedule that was embarassingly road heavy in the first half of the season. Of course after the bye the home/road part of the schedule will finally start to even out and there’ll be a ton of home games in Feburary – with our luck right when we might get hit with more storms such as the one allegedly hitting New Jersey tomorrow. At least I should be glad I’m not missing a home game tomorrow, though driving to work won’t be a picnic should I have to go.
What makes the timing of the bye worse is the Devils had played some of their best hockey of the season the week after the All-Star break, going 3-0-1 in four games. Even (gasp!) finally winning a home game for the first time in a full month, and the first time in two whole months with me in attendance. My nightmarish streak ended at seven straight losses, with the seventh being the Devils’ only post-All Star blemish – a 4-3 OT loss against the Flames where they wasted one of their best periods of the season putting up three unanswered goals in the second period, only to follow it up blowing another third period lead and losing another OT game. Our 2-1 home win over the Sabres on Monday felt like a long time coming, which it was. Really it should have been more of a blowout than that, but some strong goaltending from Robin Lehner and horrendously bad goaltending by Cory Schneider on a Tyler Ennis weakside floater in the third period made the game closer than it should have been. Fortunately rookie Pavel Zacha bailed out his goaltender with a power play goal giving the Devils back the lead for good, continuing his own strong play of late since a benching in Edmonton.
Amazingly the Devils have continued their spotless play of late on the road, running their road winning streak to six games and road points streak to nine games (8-0-1) with post-ASG wins over Detroit and Columbus…this IS the same team that couldn’t buy a win on the road the first two months, right?! Even more surprisingly, both games the Devils more or less dominated though some more horrible goaltending by Mr. Once-upon-a-time-elite Schneider turned a 4-1 laugher into a 4-3 nailbiter for the final few minutes in Detroit. Our home loss to Calgary pretty much sapped my enthusiasm to watch the Columbus game the next day (Saturday), especially considering we normally are a stepping stool for the Jackets to thump us. This time however, the tables were turned and it was the Devils who shocked the hockey world with a 5-1 clown pounding of a Jackets team twenty games over .500, and mostly silencing the Jackets’ goal cannon that’s a bane to beat writers everywhere. Showing that perhaps hell did indeed over that night, the Devils even got goals from normally hopeless (except in the shootout) Jacob Josefson and AHL plodding defenseman Seth Helgeson.
What’s changed for the Devils over this recent stretch since the break? For one thing the power play’s been a lot more effective than it’s been most of the season, going 5-10 in the four games. They’ve also tightened up structurally for the most part, particularly against the Sabres, who they held to just 23 shots on goal. That should have been the easiest shutout of Schneider’s career, seeing as he didn’t have to make one tough save in the game. Despite only one goal allowed in each of the last two games, Cory’s still been horrendously roller coaster all season, following up great saves with soft goals. Thankfully the team’s played well enough – especially offensively – to pick up the goalie in a couple of these recent games, but make no mistake, he’s going to have to play a lot better to keep up this playoff chase (currently just three points out but behind a few teams still). Fourteen goals in four games is usually a couple weeks’ total for us. Thankfully it seems as if the seat’s cooled on coach John Hynes, and the team’s been giving a lot more effort in the last few games. Perhaps the trade of popular fourth-liner Vernon Fiddler just after the break served as a bit of a wakeup call to others in the room? That’s the theory of a friend of mine, seeing the effort the last few games compared to the effort for much of the season I’m not inclined to argue at the moment.
Of course after the long break we get served up a non-ideal opponent (defending WC Champ San Jose) at a non-ideal time (Sunday at 12:30 PM) with former coach Pete DeBoer coming into the Rock for the second time with San Jose since being let go. Though we split the two games with the Sharks last year, their 4-0 whitewashing of us in San Jose this year showed we still have issues with big teams in general, as radio hosts Matt Loughlin and Sherry Ross remarked while I was listening to the postgame on the drive home from Monday night’s game. What’s annoying about the start time Sunday from a personal standpoint is the Devils are having a Taylor Hall bobblehead giveaway my friend wants to go to, but since they’re only giving it away to the first 9000 fans it’s likely we’ll have to go insanely early to get one on a weekend. And even if we do get there early enough to get one, we’ll likely have to have a long wait between getting into the arena and the game start time.
In some ways that wait would mirror the one this week without hockey.