February 14 will be a special day for many: it is the last day of games before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics takes place and the league goes on a two week break. Rather having a one day week next Sunday, I'm stretching this one to eight days.
The New Jersey Devils continue to struggle, slump, stumble, and other words that don't begin with 's' with respect to dropping games. This past week was another losing record and by virtue of the Pittsburgh Penguins dropping one game and the Devils miraculously winning one, they remain in first. This will not continue if the Devils continue to lose, the Penguins can definitely catch the Devils this week. I may emphasize in my recaps about how the losses happen (heartbreaking blowing of a lead against LA, out-and-out terrible against Toronto, running into a wall of a goalie at MSG), but the standings don't care about the how - it's just results. And they haven't been good.
The Atlantic Division as a whole didn't have a great week, though. The Penguins were the only team to manage a winning record with two wins and a loss. The New York Rangers snapped their losing streak with two wins, but still lost the other two games they had so they didn't catch the Philadelphia Flyers, whose one win was enough to stay up in the East's top eight. The New York Islanders have the worst situation as they have lost all three games last week, now seven in a row.
You may see this three point lead the Devils have over the Penguins become one depending on today's noon-time NBC game between the Penguins and the hot-as-the-Sun Washington Capitals. The Devils are still safe over Philadelphia and New York (15 point lead); but if they want to go into the Olympic Break with a .500 or better record in February, they have to win three of their four games this week. That's never easy in the NHL, unfortunately. Mathematically, the Penguins could catch them if the Devils drop a few games and the Penguins start rattling off wins. There are more combinations (e.g. Devils win 1, Pens win 3; Devils win 2, Pens win 4) since the gap is so much smaller heading into this week.
For this coming week, the Rangers have the least amount of work: they have three games whereas the rest of the division has four. So the Penguins and, more importantly, the Islanders will make up their one game in hand on the Rangers. The Devils and, more importantly, Flyers will still have at least two games in hand over the Rangers. For everyone not named Pittsburgh, I'd like to think that they'd like to have a strong week after a not-so-strong this past week going into the break:
|Potential Points||Last Week||Conf. Position|
This coming week's games feature a four of intra-division games of importance. The Devils and Flyers will do a home-and-home across three days. The Devils need these wins to regain momentum and put their struggles to bed. What better way to do that then by beating a rival? For the Flyers, they're near the top of the big mess of teams in the Eastern Conference and the wins would be huge in getting separation over the Rangers and many other teams. The Penguins have two games, one against the Islanders and one against the Rangers, where the Penguins would need the wins to stay in pace/catch-up to New Jersey and maintain fourth place over the suddenly-right-behind Ottawa Senators. The Islanders would want the win in the worst way to start stepping back into the playoff picture, and the Rangers do need it for their own playoff effort. Outside of that, the only real common opponent is the Nashville Predators, who face off against everyone in the Atlantic save for Philadelphia.
Here's the week ahead:
|NJD||@ PHI||vs. PHI||vs. NSH||@ CAR|
|PIT||@ WSH||vs. NYI||vs. NYR||vs. NSH|
|PHI||vs. NJD||@ NJD||vs. MON||@ MON|
|NYR||vs. NSH||@ PIT||vs. TB|
|NYI||vs. NSH||@ PIT||vs. TB||vs. OTT|
One final thought about this coming week. As much as the Olympic break may be useful for the Devils, the last thing they want to do is to limp into it. Right when the Devils come back in March, they will be on the road against San Jose (3/2), Calgary (3/5), and Edmonton (3/7) before the schedule goes back to being real busy. We can sit here and talk about fatigue and how the schedule has been compressed, but honestly, playoff hockey is a lot like this. The games are in quick succession and teams need to be ready for it.
Again, I reiterate that the Devils need to get out of this funk and the only way to do that is by getting 'W's. It's not impossible, but it's going to take some great performances to go into the Olympic break even at 4-3 for the month. Try and make it happen, New Jersey.