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Hartnett: Next 5 Games Will Define The Devils’ Season

DeBoer's Bunch Must Prove They're More Than Just Scrappy Underdogs
Patrik Elias (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Patrik Elias (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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‘Devils in the Details’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Having correctly predicted Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Rangers, ageless winger Jaromir Jagr offered another prediction that if taken at face value would have caused a major stir.

“I just know things,” Jagr said. “I also know we’re going to win the Stanley Cup. Don’t tell anybody.”

The quote itself was meant to be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering Jagr’s humorous personality.

Days earlier in Nashville, Jagr jokingly referred to rugged winger Cam Janssen as “Gretzky” while the enforcer was besieged by the media after scoring his second goal in three games, setting a new career high of two goals in a single season.

DO THE DEVILS HAVE ENOUGH SCORING DEPTH TO BE PLAYOFF CALIBER?

The jury is still out on whether the Devils will contend for a playoff seed.

Some believe their experienced, gritty roster and the coaching expertise of Pete DeBoer will allow New Jersey to fight hard for one of the final Eastern Conference postseason spots.

Others feel that the Devils are living on borrowed time. Their aging roster is fragile and their scoring depth is thin. Jagr, alternate captain Patrik Elias and offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky have been New Jersey’s three most reliable point-getters.

At 36, Zidlicky is the youngest of the trio. Forty-one-year-old Jagr’s durability and sustainability as a major point-getter will be questioned as the season wears on.

Thirty-seven-year-old Elias missed the past six games due to back spasms. Elias was activated off the injured reserve on Friday. He is expected to make his return tonight at Prudential Center, when the Devils lock horns with the Los Angeles Kings. Head coach Pete DeBoer described Elias as a gametime decision at Friday’s optional morning skate.

Elias remains “Mr. Reliable” for the Devils, yet losing him for another significant period of time would be crushing to the Devils and their playoff hopes.

Renowned sniper Michael Ryder was supposed to play a large role in replacing the goal-getting lost through Ilya Kovalchuk’s defection to the KHL. Thus far, Ryder has endured a difficult start to his Devils career, only totaling seven points in 18 games. Meanwhile, fellow Newfoundlander Ryane Clowe has been on the injured reserve since October 16. Clowe has suffered a long history of concussions. He was on receiving end of an elbow from Winnipeg Jets’ defenseman Jacob Trouba on October 13.

UPCOMING FIVE GAMES WILL SHED LIGHT ON WHETHER THE DEVILS CAN BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY

From Day 1, the vast majority of hockey experts counted the Devils out. DeBoer and his team have a habit of embracing the underdog tag.

DeBoer called Tuesday’s win over the Rangers a “gutsy effort” in part to the Devils losing defenseman Anton Volchenkov and having to persevere with five defensemen for 55 minutes after Volchenkov suffered a leg injury in the first period. Volchenkov is not in skating condition and is out for Friday’s game. Mark Fayne will take his spot in the lineup. Forward Stephen Gionta is expected to make his return from a right ankle injury, though DeBoer confirmed on Friday that Gionta will be a gametime decision.

The Devils are about to go through a gauntlet of tough matchups in their next five games. Over the next nine days, New Jersey will face powerhouse opponents in the Kings (twice), Penguins, Ducks and Sharks.

Their depth will be tested against three loaded Pacific Division foes and the Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins. It’s one thing to be scrappy underdogs, it’s another thing entirely to prove themselves capable of mounting a legitimate threat to those them in the Metro Division and earn the right to be called a playoff contender.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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