By Max Herman
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Thursday morning, the New Jersey Devils awoke with a seemingly untouchable sense of optimism. Their once impossible task of overcoming a deficit that loomed as large as 27 points had now become a very manageable four-point margin separating them from the 8th and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

But over the course of the following 48 hours, the Devils’ road to the postseason took a detour…

After suffering back-to-back losses to the Senators and Capitals, the Devils put themselves in a position where they may have to win 9 out of the 10 remaining games on their schedule…and that still might not be enough to get in the playoffs.

But alas these are the setbacks you incur when you lose to the worst team in the conference for the second time in 10 days and then follow that up with a punchless offensive effort against a division leader. Just like that the 4-point deficit the Devils faced on Thursday had swollen to 8.

The math now looks like this. If the Devs somehow manage to run the table, that would give them 92 points for the season. The Sabres – who currently hold the 8-spot – would then have to earn at least 14 points in their final 10 games to remain on top of New Jersey.

In other words, if Buffalo goes 7-3 or 6-2-2 in their last 10, it doesn’t matter what the Devils do. In fact, the Devils only have one more non-shootout victory than the Sabres to this point, so it’s also not a lock that New Jersey will own that tiebreaker by the end of the season. That head-to-head matchup they have in Buffalo this Saturday? Yeah, that’s a big one.

The 3-0 win over the Blue Jackets on Sunday certainly was a good way to get back on the right track. But to be frank, Columbus played a pretty lousy game for most of the 60 minutes. Unfortunately for the Devils, the schedule gets much tougher in the games ahead…

Of the 10 opponents left on the schedule, 8 of them are currently playoff teams. That includes road games against the Sabres, Bruins, Rangers, and Penguins twice. And don’t forget about home games against the Flyers, Canadiens, and Bruins again. So let’s just say that if the Devils come out of this stretch with only one loss or better, they deserve a trophy just for that.

Max’s Random Observations:

– Anybody who has seen more than a handful of Devils games this year knows that scoring has been an issue with this team. They rank last in the NHL with just a hair over two goals per game.

What fans need to come to terms with is the fact that the Devils simply aren’t built to win 5-4 free-for-alls. They’re systematically and personnel-wise built to win 1-0 and 2-1 hockey games…maybe 3-2 if they’re feeling crazy.

The point is, if you’re a fan who laments the lack of goal scoring (like most of my Twitter followers do), you can’t ask this team to be something they’re not.

It’s interesting though that I didn’t hear a lot of this pessimism until they dropped two in a row. Funny how we tend to ignore a team’s shortcomings when it isn’t coming back to bite them in the gonads.

– Ilya Kovalchuk has cooled off. He’s tallied just 1 point in his last 5 games; with that point coming on an empty-net goal he scored in Atlanta.

The Devils rely on him so much for goal scoring, so perhaps it’s being magnified more than it should. I mean the guy was the number one driving force behind the run that got New Jersey this close to the playoffs in the first place.

But Jacques Lemaire conceded during the postgame press conference after the loss to Washington on Friday that Kovy has not looked as comfortable in recent games.

“When you start to lose a puck at a certain time, it’s because you’re tighter,” Lemaire said. “Kovy wants to do so much for this team. To me, he’s just got to play a shift at a time and try to do the best he can and not too much, so he stays focused on what he has to do. What he’s doing right now, he wants to do too much. That’s it.”

Sounds an awful like what we were hearing from John MacLean during the beginning stages of the year, doesn’t it? But the difference is this time I think I can safely say he’ll be able to figure it out and be productive in the last 10 games of the season…I think.

– This one isn’t a Devils-related observation but I have this space at my disposal so I’m gonna go ahead and use it to spend a minute talking about Matt Cooke.

Yesterday, young Ryan McDonagh’s name was added to the laundry list of players that have been on the receving end of a Cooke cheap shot. And considering how long his rap sheet is, the NHL needs to make an example out of Cooke if they are really serious about cracking down on headshots.

You gotta love the fact that Mario Lemieux and Ray Shero – Cooke’s owner and GM – are two of the people at the forefront of the rally to eliminate these kinds of incidents from occuring..

Only a few days ago, Lemieux proposed to implement a system that fines teams for players’ on-ice indiscretions. Shero called for an outright ban on headshots on his team’s behalf. Not to mention all of the crying Lemieux did after he felt the league mishandled the fallout from Fight Night on Long Island. Oh yes, that’s rich with irony.

The bottom line, though, is this: Matt Cooke is a thug on skates, and if he doesn’t find a way to curb his desire to scramble the brains of his opponents, then he will be thrown out of this league.

In the meantime, the Penguins have 10 games left on their schedule, and certainly 10 games would not be an unreasonable suspension for Cooke by any means. So to me the easy solution and the correct solution seem to be one and the same. But lord knows the NHL has screwed these things up before. I’m just curious to see if they force him to miss playoff games. The decision will come down from the league this afternoon.

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