Devils

Dealing With The Devils: Mission Improbable

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New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, second from right, celebrates with teammates, from left to right, Jason Arnott, Mark Fayne, and Henrik Tallinder, after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime during NHL hockey game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk, second from right, celebrates with teammates, from left to right, Jason Arnott, Mark Fayne, and Henrik Tallinder, after scoring the game-winning goal in overtime during NHL hockey game action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011. The Devils defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)

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By Max Herman
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For those of you who maybe haven’t been paying attention, the scratching and clawing you hear coming from the basement of the Eastern Conference standings is the sound of the New Jersey Devils fighting for their playoff lives.

On January 9th, the Devils were the worst team in hockey. They found themselves separated from the 8th and final playoff spot in the East by a 27-point crater. But now, less than six weeks later, that margin has been hacked down to just 12 points.

The Devils are in the midst of a 13-1-2 stretch that currently finds them winners of five straight games, their longest winning streak of the year.

Certainly this is great news for the organization. But the question remains, will they actually be able to complete this miracle run by making the playoffs, or will they simply run out of time?

Personally, I still feel it’s just going to be a little too much to overcome, but here I’ll play both sides of the coin. First, here are three reasons the Devils might actually be able to pull this off…

Three Reasons They Will

1)   Head coach Jacques Lemaire has his team playing better defensive hockey than they have at any point this season. In fact, I’ll go even farther than that. They’re playing even better defensively than they were last year when they were one of the top 5 teams in the NHL standings.

They support each other in their own zone so well. Not only does this clamp down on the number of quality scoring chances for the opposition, it also translates into offense when the Devils create turnovers in the neutral zone. That’s why you’ve been seeing a lot more odd-man rushes being generated.

Wednesday night’s game against Carolina would have been the prototype for this stingy style of D had the Devils not sat back on their heels after going up 3-0 early in the 3rd. In fact, they almost let the Canes come all the way back.

But that brings me to my next point…

2)   The Devils are finding ways to win games even when they do not have rested legs or might not have what you would call their ‘A game.’ When a team can compile victories despite not putting forth their best effort, it does wonders for team confidence while also keeping them committed to improving.

The game against the Sharks on Friday night was a great example of this. The Devils had just played in Toronto the previous night and needed overtime to decide that tilt. They travelled home with weary legs, faced with the daunting task of playing a very talented San Jose squad who came into Newark on a 9-0-1 stretch in their previous 10 games.

The Devils’ sluggishness was evident throughout the vast majority of the contest, but they kept the game within reach and found themselves trailing 1-0 in the 3rd period. It was then that they concentrated what energy they had left and picked up their play. They would find a way to net two goals in the final 11 minutes of regulation to earn a much-needed win.

Just a few months ago the Devils had to play a near-perfect 60 minutes to earn a victory in any given game. But when you play as responsibly on defense as this team has, sometimes all you need is one or two goals to skate by with the 2 points…

3)   Of the Devils’ 25 remaining games, 13 of them are against Eastern Conference foes that are ranked no higher than 7th place in the standings. Each of those games is really worth 4 points to the Devils, as they can earn two points for winning, and obviously they can prevent their opponent from earning any for themselves.

So even though the Devils will certainly need the teams in front of them to help out their cause by losing to teams higher up in the standings and also in the Western Conference, New Jersey does control a small portion of their fate.

So there you go: three perfectly sound reasons why the Devils have what it takes to close this gap…

But even after saying all of that, it only takes one method of reasoning to refute everything I just mentioned…

The Reason They Won’t

MATHEMATICS

I know. 12 points in 25 games doesn’t seem like that tall of a mountain to climb. But let’s look closer at the task at hand. Warning: if you’re a Devils fan who hated math in high school, I can promise that this next word problem will only make you loathe it all the more…

Right now, the Hurricanes lay claim to the final playoff spot in the East with 24 games remaining on their schedule. That means there are 48 points left on the table for them to potentially earn this season. Let’s just say hypothetically that the Canes don’t play particularly well the rest of the way and only earn half of those points (24). That would give the Hurricanes 86 points total for the season.

The Devils, by contrast, have 25 games remaining for a total of 50 points left to win or lose this year. In order to equal the 86 points the Hurricanes would have per this example, the Devils would need to earn 36 points in those final 25 games. In other words, they would have to post a record resembling something like 18-7…

And that’s just if the Canes play .500 hockey. For each game that they play over the .500 mark, add 2 to the number of points the Devils would subsequently have to earn to top them.

This problem is only compounded by the fact that Carolina is just one of five teams who stand in between the Devils and the final playoff berth. So not only would the Hurricanes have to stumble, so too would the Sabres, Thrashers, Maple Leafs, and Panthers.  Realistically, all it takes is for any one of these teams to finish up the season strong to eliminate New Jersey from the postseason equation.

So even though the Devils have been playing out of their minds lately – and they really have – there is still a lot that has to break exactly their way in order to make this pipe dream a reality.

But by all means, do dare to dream Devils’ fans. This is no longer Mission Impossible. But it is Mission Improbable.

Regardless of whether or not they make the playoffs, Devils hockey is awfully fun to watch these days. And considering what it looked like for the first 41 games of this year, I’d just be happy for that…

Max’s Three Stars

Third Star: RW Nick Palmieri

Not much was made of the arrival of this former 3rd-round pick to the NHL roster on New Year’s Day. But since being teamed up on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac, Palmieri has found himself in the middle of scoring chance after scoring chance. He’s got a nose for the puck around the net and has proven to be a good finisher on rebounds and goal-mouth scrambles. In 18 games this season, Nick has 5 G, 2 A, and is a +7 while averaging anywhere between 12 to 17 minutes of ice time.

Second Star: G Johan Hedberg

Considering Martin Brodeur hasn’t faced a shot since Super Bowl Sunday, I’d say it’s safe to say that the Moose has been a huge part of the reason the Devils have continued to surge in this second half. He’s faced 113 shots in the last 4 games and stopped 107 of them, making some of his best saves while on the penalty kill. In my mind, he is easily the best back-up goalie to grace the Devils’ bench during Marty’s career. My apologies to Scott Clemmensen, who did win 25 of the 40 games he started in place of Brodeur two years ago.

First Star: LW Ilya Kovalchuk

I think we can all agree. THIS is the guy the Devils inked to that $100M contract this summer. With 13 points in his last 10 games and 6 goals in his last 7 games, 3 of which were game-winning tallies, it’s fair to say that Kovy is feeling pretty darn good about where he’s at right now. His previously laughable plus/minus rating has been on the ascent, as he has only posted a minus rating in 2 of the last 17 games. Now it seems the Devils can only hope that his patented goal-scoring celebration of swiping his glove along the ice doesn’t cool off his ridiculously hot hand.

With apologies to: Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston

Email Max a question or comment: mherman@wfan.com

Follow Max on Twitter: @MaxHermanWFAN

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Do you think the Devils will come all the way back to make the playoffs? Post your comments below!

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