I'm bringing out my split personality everybody, watch the freak out! Sort of like the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Treat the main character as the entire In Lou We Trust community, or the entire Devils fan base for that matter. A man after some inner struggles (the first half of the season, MacLean, Langenbrunner, players being waived) creates a potion to part these struggles into two separate beings (the kool-aid?). Instead of good and evil (though it's slowly turning into that concept around here), it's believer and realist; optimism and pessimism; playoffs and no playoffs.
The Devils are the hottest team in the NHL. Since January 9th, the Devils have only one regulation loss, a 3-1 loss in Detroit. They are 15-1-2 since that same date and are riding their longest winning streak since an eight game stretch way back in November 2009. They sat 27 points behind 8th placed, but this remarkable stretch has it withered down to 10 points.
That's great and all, but there work isn't even close to being done. After one of the worst first half's in franchise history, they've dug a hole so deep, there isn't a sequoia in the world that can help them climb out. They still sit far in terms of the standings and have only 23 games left. They would have to mirror what they've in the last 18 games and then some. On top of that they still need help and that this comeback has never been done before (the largest comeback was 13 points back).
After the jump, I have five reasons each why the Devils will do the impossible and make the playoffs and why they just they will just be a feel good, fall short second half of the season story and miss the post season for the first time since 1996.
Why the Devils Will Make the Playoffs
1. Ilya Kovalchuk - This guy is absolutely on fire. In this 18 game stretch, he's got 11 goals and 9 assists. He's had five multi-point games, four game winning goals, and he's currently riding a 10 game point streak (which ties his career high). He's shooting over 20% and showing why he's one of the best shooters in the league.
What's more impressive is his defensive game. He's no longer the "sit at top of the point on defense looking to score" player. He's skating back as hard and fast as he is while going end-to-end with the puck. He's back-checking, he's stick-checking, and always in good position on defense. I see him countless times looking at his surroundings and making the appropriate adjustments to what the other teams are doing. If he continues this outstanding play while having as much fun as it seems he's having (and it seems he's having a blast out there), the Devils are going to be very difficult to slot down, let alone stop.
2. Top Two Lines - I got Kovalchuk out of the way, but he's not the only juggernaut on offense lately. With the help of Jacques Lemaire, the Devils have stabilized their lines and it's been paying off. Kovalchuk's play with the help of Travis Zajac (who some call the most underrated center in the league) and rising rookie Nick Palmieri has turned this into a versatile line. Zajac and Palmieri have been able to win battles and cycle the puck to create space for Kovalchuk. Put in Zajac's playmaking ability (10 assists in last 18 games) and Palmieri's size and strength to get into good position around the net really makes this line difficult to defend.
What's insane is that this isn't even the Devils best line. The Brian Rolston-Patrik Elias-Dainius Zubrus line has been unstoppable. Led by Elias, this line has combined for 22 goals and 24 assists in the last 18 games. They are combined +40 in (plus/minus) in the same span and have 8 game winning goals. Elias alone has 13 assists. This line is like a never ending waterwheel, it just keeps cycling. They have the ability to gain possession in the corners and really wear teams out. They enjoy getting the puck back to the point (or have the benefit of the defense pinching in) to keep the play going. Zubrus has been able to get some fortunate deflections and Rolston has been in good position to get to loose rebounds. If there's is one line to seek out as to why the Devils have great puck possession (and be better than the Rags), it's this line.
3. Goaltending - This stretch has been a tale of two goaltenders, but you can't really tell them apart when looking at their play. Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have been unstoppable. Brodeur started the stretch on a real roll, then tweaked his knee against the Montreal Canadiens. He's been practicing and now he's completely ready to get between the pipes if given the nod. In his last10 games, he's been a wall. He's 8-1-1 with a 0.928 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA. What even awesomer (yes, awesomer) is that the Moose came right in and hasn't missed a beat. He's even been better than Marty in this stretch, going 6-0-1 with a 0.942 save percentage a ridiculous 1.47 GAA. He was even named the NHL's second star of the week. Lemaire has the beauty of choosing two goalies playing very well; what a great problem to have.
Lemaire can ride the hot goalie while the other rests and vice versa. Down the stretch, having two rested goalies (a goaltending battle even?) is very advantageous. One more thing, I have to give a shout out to the defense. A goalie is only as good as the defense in front of him, and the Devils blue line has been strong. They have given the opposition rarely anything in terms of quality chances and when they have, Marty or the Moose have been there. They have cleared away rebounds and second chance opportunities all while doing a good job of getting the puck north ice. Moose called his shutout win against the Rangers "the best defensive effort he's had in his career".
4. (Offensive) Defensemen - I just mentioned the defense and their ability to do their job in their own end, yet they have been contributing on the offensive side of the puck. Each of the six defenders have at least 4 points in this 15-1-2 span, including Anton Volchenkov who missed three games due to a suspension. Henrik Tallinder leads the defense in this 18 game span with 7 points (2G-5A), Mark Fayne has 1 goal and 5 assists, and Andy Greene, who is leading the defense in scoring this year, has 6 assists.
One thing that has surprised me has been their shooting. Three Devils have 20 shots or more in this same span (Tallinder, Fayne, and Salmela). Fayne specifically has 8 shots in the last two games and has really stood out in terms of shooting from the point and getting the puck on net. The guys at Talking Red discussed Fayne's emergence in their last episode and the defense's ability to pinch in and contribute to keeping possession in the offensive zone. If the defense can continue to play this way without getting caught while being in deep, the winning ways will continue.
5. Penalty Kill - Though this is a minuscule aspect in games, it's still needs a mention in my book. The Devils for the season are ranked 10th in the NHL in penalty kill percentage at 83.6%. Though they have only been 42 for 51 in their last 18 games (82.3%), they have been a perfect 14 for 14 in their last five games. Vladimir Zharkov has really come into his own when the Devils are a man down. His ability to block shots and make smart, quick decisions to clear the puck has been crucial. He even has a great ability to slow the opposition down in the neutral zone, forcing them to dump or make the difficult pass. Zajac and Elias continue to play well and the defense led by Colin White and Andy Greene have really been in great position when short handed.
Not letting up easy goals due to penalties (and dumb ones for that matter) and making the opposition work for their goals is going to tell whether this team can make the playoffs.
Why the Devils Will Not Make the Playoffs
1. What Goes Up... - This pretty much challenges everything I said above. No matter what happens around the rest of the Eastern Conference, if the Devils want to make the playoffs, they have to continue this onslaught. The MSG crew said after the Rangers game that this was the best 17 game stretch (in terms of points) since the 2000-2001 season (the best Devils team ever in my opinion). I highly doubt they can keep up everything I just said above. Will two lines continue to dominate their opposition? Will Moose and Marty, both who are about to turn 38 and 39 in a couple months continue to play like brick walls? Will this "no name defense" continue to contribute offensively while playing great defense? All of this for the next 23 games. Everybody is playing out of their mind right now; will this continue?
Who knows if this exact team is even the same team in the coming weeks. The trade deadline is in a week. ILWT has some Trade Deadline Questions on Jason Arnott, Andy Greene, and David Clarkson. Suppose one, two, or even all three are dealt. We don't know what Lou is doing or his intentions, but it's something to put in the back of our minds for the next week.
2. Position - The Devils have made up a ton of ground, yet as I said above, they just aren't moving up the standings fast enough. Points are good, but 90 points isn't an automatic qualifier for the playoffs. They need to be in 8th place (duh!). The gap between 8th place Carolina (64 points) and 9th place Buffalo (60 points) is widening. The Devils did their job against Carolina winning the season series, but there are four other teams the Devils are chasing, and they are still 10 points behind the Canes. They sit 3 points (with no games in hand) against Florida and Toronto. They sit 6 points behind the Thrashers (Devils have one game in hand) and the Buffalo (one game in hand on the Devils). The Devils can continue their outstanding run and barely move up the standings. So much of the Devils playoff hopes depend on...
3. Other Teams - I talked about position, and where they stand against the teams in front of them, but what about those teams? Since January 9th, here's are the other teams records: Toronto 9-7-3; Florida is 7-7-5; Atlanta is 3-9-4; Buffalo is 9-7-1; Carolina is 9-9-2. Aside from Atlanta, each team is at or above 0.500. Per Frank's Devils Playoff Deathwatch, if they continue this pace of 0.500, the Devils would still need to go 16-6-1. Being dependent on other teams to lose is never a good position to be in. It's a wait and see factor that the team has no control over. That sucks, and it maybe the only reason that keeps the Devils out of the playoffs.
4. Schedule - The Devils still have a pretty tough schedule ahead of them. They are currently in the middle of a four game road trip, where three of the teams are currently in playoffs spot and one very much in the hunt with New Jersey. They have another long road stand at the end of March where they face Columbus, Boston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo in a span of six days. They have eight games remaining against the top four teams in the east, and eight games against the teams ranked four through 12. More than two-thirds of the Devils games are against teams fighting for positions and/or for a playoff spot. These teams share the same urgency that the Devils need to get into the playoffs, and knowing how well the Devils are playing, they aren't going to take them lightly like they possibly were in the beginning of this turnaround. Games against fellow teams fighting can very well slow down this hot streak and keep the Devils out.
5. Powerplay - Like the penalty kill, this needs to be mentioned because it can very well steal a game for the Devils. The problem is they just aren't converting. They are setting up and getting good shots, but shots don't count on the scoreboard (well, they do count them...you get my point). Under Lemaire, the Devils have just 7 powerplay goals on 70 tries. Their last goal up a man was against the San Jose Sharks, which was desperately needed. The Devils should be taking advantage of every man advantage they get or they could have fell on wrong side of the Sharks game. It's tough to change something where they have been good, yet just haven't capitalized. The Devils have been very fortunate in other areas, yet if they continue to be unlucky on the powerplay, they may face a few games where scoring that one goal could be the difference.
So what do you think? Which reasons are more important? Do you have your own that I didn't mention? Can the Devils pull this miracle off or will they fall short? Some have been wishing for a place to talk playoff hopes, so here it is. Please let us know in the comments what you think on all things playoffs. Thanks for reading.