We all know Jacques won't talk about the playoffs until the Devils are within 5 points (and personally, I think he'll still deflect as many questions as he can even if it gets to that point), but that doesn't stop us from doing it, right? The number of games remaining for the teams in 7th through 12th place is becoming manageable to take a little closer look at exactly who has whom left to play. And I'll also throw in a few numbers to keep the numbers geeks interested.
First I have to say the following; the Devils have made some great strides from where they were on January 8th, checking out of Heartbreak Hotel and starting down the road to recovery. However, that road gets real bumpy pretty soon. After tonight, the Devils have 13 games remaining and only Atlanta has a greater strength of schedule than the Devils for their remaining games. In addition, the Devils play the most games against teams with a better than a .600 points percentage.
Taking the teams alphabetically, the average strength of schedule for each team is as follows (still including tonight's games), and the number of games against the league's best (.600 or above):
Atlanta Thrashers: .576, 6
Buffalo Sabres: .555, 4
Carolina Hurricanes: .556, 6
New Jersey Devils: .568, 7
New York Rangers: .545, 5
Toronto Maple Leafs: .551, 5
Two of the scariest points in that list are the fact that the teams currently occupying 7th and 8th place have both the fewest games against the best teams, and the weakest strength of schedule (although the former does directly impact the latter).
As I pointed out in today's scoreboard watching post; the Sabres can be the most help to the Devils, as they play everybody in between at least once. So, in addition to being the team that can most positively impact the Devils playoff hopes (while solidifying their own, which is important, since it seems the Philadelphia Flyers feel the need to help everybody else), they have the fewest games against "tough" teams. Personally, I think it's a pretty safe bet that Buffalo will have locked up the 7th spot when all is said and done. 2 of Buffalo's 4 games against plus .600 teams are on the road.
The Rangers have only a slightly more difficult road than the Sabres, having 5 games against plus .600 teams, 3 of which are on the road. However, they still have 3 games remaining against the Islanders and Senators. On the plus side, the, along with Toronto, have the fewest games remaining overall.
Carolina has a decent chance to fade, having 6 games against the .600+ teams, 3 of them being against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but only 2 of those 6 are on the road.
Atlanta also has 6 tough games, and 4 of these are on the road. If the Devils put Atlanta behind them tonight, they'll likely stay there for the remainder of the season.
Toronto has 5 tougher games, 3 on the road; and as I mentioned before, the fewest games left.
And finally, the Devils have 7 of these games, 3 being on the road, 2 of those being in Pittsburgh (the other in Boston). In essence, the games-in-hand the Devils have on everybody in front of them, aren't the easiest ones to pick up points in.
So, the Devils not only have to make up as many as 6 points on everybody outside of their head-to-head games; they have to do it with a more difficult schedule. Like I said, the road is getting bumpy (and steeper); and perhaps even like 98% of the roads in New Jersey - laced with pot-holes. Their margin for error is almost completely gone. If they stay close to their recent .800 clip, a) it would be extremely impressive, b) they'll have 11 wins (or 10 wins and 2OTL) and get to that magical 90 point threshold, and c) may still fall short because Buffalo can be 7-5-1 and get to 91, and the Rangers 7-4-1 to get to 91; neither of these last two prospects aren't a huge stretch.