The chatter around the web about the Devils the last couple days has focused on the team's record-setting first half. The Devils currently stand at 30-10-1 for 61 points, putting them first in the Eastern Conference and third in the NHL (though just two points back and with games in hand against both the Blackhawks and Sharks). Given a bit of a lull in the schedule (two whole days off!), I thought I'd take a look at the strength of the Devils' competition in the first half of the season as it compares to the upcoming second half and what effect it might have on their chances of staying on pace to complete just the third 60-win season in NHL history (and the first since the Red Wings set the current win record of 62 in 1995-1996).
The combined record (as of 1/7/2010) of the Devils' 20 first-half opponents is 423-328-105 or an average of 21-16-5 (truncating decimals) for 47 points. (Fun fact: Our Hated Rivals currently sit 7th in the Eastern Conference at 47 points, so averaged out the Devils theoretically played the Rangers 41 times, winning 30. Wouldn't that be awesome if it were real life?) That said, combined records don't tell the whole story - it's important to look at who the Devils faced, as well as who they faced most often.
Of the top 10 teams in the NHL, the Devils played five - the Blackhawks, Sabres, Caps, Pens, and Canucks - going 7-4-0. Not bad, though I'm sure the Devils would have liked to have better showings against the Blackhawks and Canucks in their only meetings so far this season (more on that later).
Against lesser competition, the Devils played 7 of the bottom 10 teams in the league - the Isles, Flyers, Thrashers, Lightning, Panthers, Ducks, and Hurricanes - going a combined 12-4-0. You could certainly make the argument that some of the teams on this list are pretty dangerous - I don't think anyone expected the Flyers to be sitting where they are halfway through the season and the Isles are only 1 point out of a playoff spot - but looking strictly at league-wide standings the Devils played 5 more games against the basement of the league than against the top competition.
Getting ahead of ourselves, let's look at potential Conference Finals matchups: against current Eastern Conference playoff teams the Devils went a combined 15-3-0 against the Sabres, Caps, Pens, Bruins, Senators, Rangers, and Canadiens. Not too shabby! The sweep so far of the defending Stanley Cup Champions makes me particularly happy, especially given the
whining frustration shown by the Pens throughout the Dec. 30 game. I think it's safe to say the Devils are in their heads.
Getting way ahead of ourselves, let's look at potential Cup Finals matchups: against current Western Conference playoff teams the Devils went a combined 0-2-1 against the Blackhawks, Canucks, and Predators. Yes, I'm as surprised as you are that the Red Wings are 5 points and a game out of the 8th spot in the West. Yes, 0-2-1 doesn't look that good. But if I may channel my inner Chico and be a
homer optimist, all three losses came with mitigating circumstances: Nashville won via shootout/skills competition, the Vancouver game featured stinkeroos by both Marty and Roberto Luongo (I'd argue that Vancouver didn't win that game as much as not-lost it), and the loss to Chicago was a classic let-down game - 2nd game in two days, away, after a big division game against the Pens the night before.
Now let's look ahead to the second half of the season. The Devils' 22 opponents in the second half are a combined 468-360-120 for an average record of...21-16-5 and 47 points! Weird...
Broken down, though, there are a couple differences - in the second half the Devils play 8 of the 9 other teams in the NHL top 10, with only the season series against Washington complete. Fortunately, they only get the Sharks, 'Hawks, Coyotes, Flames, Avalanche, and Preds once (two left against the Pens and Sabres) while playing bottom-feeders St. Louis, Toronto, Columbus, Edmonton, and Carolina a combined 9 times.
Cumulatively, that means in the second half the Devils pay 9 games against the top 10 in the league and and 19 against the bottom 10 (with 9 of those games against the bottom 5) as opposed to 11 and 16 in the first half. Roughly speaking, the Devils have an easier schedule in the bottom half of the season than they did in their record-setting first half.
Of course, none of these games are a given - Carolina's season has been a disaster so far, but with Cam Ward coming back they could get hot; the Isles and Flyers, as I've mentioned, are still very much in the playoff hunt and should be playing with hunger in the second half, and I can certainly see the Lightning stealing a win if St. Louis and Lecavalier get hot. Not to mention the 12 games against the likes of the Kings, Bruins, Senators - and of course, four against Our Hated Rivals across the Hudson.
To sum up, the road ahead is on its face a bit smoother than what the Devils have traveled so far. I don't expect the Devils to stay as hot as they've been the whole rest of the season, but with David Clarkson, Dainus Zubrus and ESPECIALLY Paul Martin coming back in the second half and maybe a top-six defenseman or scoring center coming in via trade, the latter half of the 2009-10 season looks to be a pretty good one for our beloved Devils. Will they end up with 60 wins? Probably not. Will they at least make a run at 60 and by extension the winningest season in franchise history? I'd like to think this team has what it takes.