There has been a lot of recent talk of Devils' playoff draws and how luck figures into it. Looking at how the Devils drew the Flyers in the 1st Round and figuring what might have been if they had not still persists in many of our minds. So, I decided to take a look at the history of the Devils' playoff opponents in Round 1. The stats I will use to break this down are:
A) A points comparison
B) A comparison of GF/ GA differential
C) A look at what the 2 teams record was in their last 15 regular season games.
D) Season series
If there are any other stats you feel would shed important light, please feel free to comment. Some of this will also be anecdotal evidence from me as a fan, while not statistical, should hopefully add to the insight.
Part I was here and now Part II
1994 - This season marked the beginning of the Jacques Lemaire age and the transformation of the traditional conferences in hockey (Wales and Campbell to Eastern and Western). Additionally, the division playoff 1 v. 4 format was scrapped for a conference 1 v. 8 format.
A) 11 points
B) NJ: +86, Buff: +64 For some reason, everyone seemed to score more goals offensively this year. I couldn't find the stat, but I' wondering if the NHL teams just simply averaged more goals per game this season than others.
C) NJ: 8-5-2, Buff: 8-6-1
D) 3 - 1 Devils
This Devils team was good. They were second overall in the entire NHL and were 2nd in the NHL in GF and GA and boasted a GF/ GA differential of +86. However, they ran into the team that edged them out of the Jennings Award for best defensive team in the NHL. Dominik Hasek, who had his breakout year, became a unchallenged number one goalie and won the Vezina Trophy. Hasek had a GAA in this series of 2.00 GAPG and still lost.
Verdict: On paper, this was the best matchup for the Devils in their playoff history up to this point, but a closer examination shows how even these teams were. This was destined to be a low scoring series and a series that would be decided by Rookie-of-the-year-to-be Martin Broduer and Vezina-winner Hasek. My most recent comparison of this series would be the 2009 Carolina series. Low scoring and it could have gone either way. But in 1994, the breaks fell to the Devils. This was probably the toughest 1st round matchup in Devils history that they won. I always felt this series, if a little easier may have seen the Devils topple the Rangers in the CF, but that's just my gut.
A) 5 points
B) Bos: +23, NJ: +15 The 1994-95 lockout shortened this season. Until the Devils won in 2000, I remember some Canadian fans would chant "Shortened Season" when I went to road games that featured the Devils.
C) Bos: 10-4-1, NJ: 8-5-2,
D) 3 - 1 Bruins
Only separated by 5 points, pretty even on goal differential. But Boston was pretty good down the stretch and won the season series. The Devils played the trap effectively and forced Boston to play their game. But the big difference here was Marty. He had 3 shutouts in the series and Bruins only averaged a 1.00 GPG when it was all said and done after 5. This may have been one of the Devils' weakest Round 1 opponents. The Bruins had Blaine "Let 'em in" Lacher in goal. True, he did lead the Bruins to the playoffs, playing tremendously at the end of the season, but the Devils, who scored 5 goals in Game 1 - destroyed any hope he would have in the NHL again.
Verdict: This was a cake opponent. The Devils took down a mediocre Pens team in Round 2, and 2 VERY GOOD teams in the Flyers and Red Wings - this year was Cup Number One.
A) 27 points - this is the 1st time ever the Devils would play a team that had a winning pct. below .500
B) NJ: +49, Mtl: -27 - First team the Devils would play in Round 1 that had a minus goal differential.
C) NJ 9-4-2, Mtl: 7-4-4 Both teams played well enough down the stretch
D) 2 - 0 - 2 Devils
Looking at this now, this is probably the easiest opponent the Devils have ever played in the 1st Round with the biggest difference in point differential. My original argument overall, is that when the Devils have had success in the playoffs - they've usually had a favorable Round 1 opponent. This would seemingly be the year that wasn't the case. Maybe the Candiens were TOO easy? Even Marty scored a goal.
Verdict: By Far and Away, the Devils easiest Round 1 opponent ever. But why couldn't they carry over this momentum? That's my argument - when the Devils got a favorable matchup in Round 1 - they've had success. In Round 2, they won Game 1 against the Rangers and seemingly took the lead in Game 2, but Steve Thomas's goal was disallowed. The biggest kicker for me this year was that Esa Tikkanen was a Devil the year before and only played 9 game before being dealt to Vancouver. This year, at the trade deadline, he was dealt to the Rangers, reuniting him with Gretzky, Messier and he played like an Oiler, scoring 9 goals in 15 games and KILLED the Devils in the 2nd Round series. My only explanation of this 2nd Round loss is that the Rangers were still in the Devils' heads and the Devils would suffer from a tremendous psychological block in the playoffs from here until 2000. Also 2nd leading scorer Dave Andreychuk broke his ankle in the LAST game of the year and wasn't around until Game 5 of Round 2. From the NYT:
Another part of Lemaire's game plan delighted the Rangers. New Jersey had a 47-31 edge in shots on goal today, a pattern that held through most of the series. But Richter and his teammates said that was deceptive because the Devils were taking long shots from angles that were not that dangerous.
But 1997 would start a year of chokes. . . . and perhaps this is where my argument breaks down . . .
A) 24 points
B) NJ: +59, Ott: -7
C) NJ: 7-6-2, Ott 7-4-4
D) 2 - 2 - EVEN
With this series, we see an even regular season matchup and an Ottawa team that was playing well enough, even slightly better than the Devils down the stretch. In the series, Ottawa won 2 OT games and won all 3 at home. This was the middle year of a dark period in Devils' playoff history with number 1 seedings, but early playoff exits.
Verdict: This was a seemingly favorable matchup, but a lot of it came down to coaching and how the NHL began cracking down on the Devils' style of play. My only somewhat convincing argument would be that Jacques Martin knew Lemaire's style of coaching and simply got Ottawa to counter the Devils' trap quite masterfully. The 1997 Rangers did the same. Lemaire was charged that he couldn't adjust during a game, a criticism that has popped up on this blog about the 2010 season. If you can read that NYT link, you'll see the writer compare the Devils as older and bigger and how Ottawa was younger and faster and able to skate around them with the increased enforcement on clutching and grabbing. There was so much criticism leveled at Lemaire after this series' choke, Jacques was gone after this collapse.
Sometimes, a team that plays afraid to lose becomes a team afraid to win.
But Robbie Ftorek would see the Devils collapse next year even harder . . .
A) 15 points
B) NJ: +52, Pitt: +17
C) NJ: 9-3-3, Pitt: 3-8-4 - The Devils were playing great down the stretch, the Pens - not so much.
D) 4 - 1 Devils - But all games were decided by 2 goals or less.
This is the most baffling and karma-induced Devil 1st Round playoff collapses. But it goes in line with "Beware when you draw a divisional opponent in the 1st Round." The NJ Devils are an abysmal 2 - 8 when playing a divisional opponent in Round 1. The Devils won the season series and the Penguins were playing horribly down the stretch. Jaromir Jagr was injured for most of this series but came back to play in Game 6. It was BIG. The Devils were about 2 minutes from advancing to Round 2 and then Jagr tied it and won it in OT. Oh yeah, Devil killer Martin Straka had led the Penguins in playoff scoring this year. This article from the NYT was very down on Marty, letting up 4 goals in Game 7 on only 13 shots.
Verdict: In the new 1 v. 8 format, it is never an easy 1st Round matchup when you draw a divisional opponent.
1997 Montreal Canadiens
1994 Buffalo Sabres
From 1995-96 on, this was probably my most frusterating time as a Devils' fan. It was also a time in my life that I was away at college for all 4 years and couldn't really watch the Devils (some nights I could get 770 AM and get the Devils on the radio . . . in western Ohio. I still am in awe at some AM NYC Radio stations signal strengths). By the time I returned to NJ in 1999, my first weekend day at home was spent watching that infamous Game 6 with Jagr as the hero. It was a crude homecoming. Ftorek would return next year, but Lou, who trusted his gut went with Larry Robinson and the Golden Years in Devils history were about to begin and I was glad to be back in NJ to see it . . . NEXT PART III 2000 - to the Lockout.