While it's early on in the season, the Devils are doing very well for themselves, standing two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Atlantic Division title 19 games into the season. With that being said, do the Devils have a realistic chance of winning the Atlantic?
While it's been 19 games, the Devils have looked either like a good team or a bad team. The good news is that they've won games at the start of the season, which means they'll have a slightly easier time making the playoffs if they have a rough stretch or two. Of course, they're also still in a position to possibly win the Atlantic Division, which would give them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs. While the Devils didn't have any trouble without the benefit of home-ice advantage, having the last change and a crowd in your team's favour is always helpful. So is it possible to win the Atlantic?
Looking at the Other Teams
Data courtesy of Cam Charron's PDO Numbers for 2/25/13- so these numbers might be off for a few teams
The Atlantic is pretty even to be honest. The Penguins are definitely the best team in the Atlantic- not only are they a good possession team (52.6% Close score Fenwick), they're not benefitting from good luck (1010 PDO). What's going in their favour is that they do have Sidney Crosby, who is currently 1 point behind Steven Stamkos for the NHL's lead in points and is very good at hockey, regardless of what you think about him. Even without Evgeni Malkin, they still have Chris Kunitz (21 points), James Neal (12 goals) and Kris Letang (16 points in 19 games) and solid secondary scoring. Their achilles heel will be their goaltending- the .918 ESSV% is a bit worrisome. However, good puck possession can make up for poor goaltending.
The Rangers don't look like the dominant beast of the east, but rather an average team. The .928 ESSV% indicates that Henrik Lundqvist is looking like Henrik Lundqvist again, which is good for them. The bad news is that even with Rick Nash, they're not scoring- their 41 goals is good for last in the eastern conference. Brad Richards is inching closer and closer to a buyout. Their bottom 6 is kind of a mess right now. However, you can't count them out yet. They're a good possession team (53.4% Fenclose) with 1008 PDO If Lundqvist has a stretch of absurd goaltending like he had last year, then they might find themselves in the Atlantic division title picture. Good thing everyone had unrealistic expectations for them!
The Flyers aren't very good either, but it's more luck based than anything. An .899 ESSV is pretty bad, even if it is Ilya Bryzgalov. They were rocking a low shooting percentage (6.7% last week), but they're regressing and scoring lots of goals- in a week, their ESSV has jumped to 7.7% (!). They're a positive possession team, which is good for them if they want to win. If they can get better goaltending, they might be a threat- but with no competent backup Bryzgalov will have to carry the load for the Flyers and play a lot of games. It's an uphill battle for them.
The Islanders aren't a good possession team who suffers from awful goaltending (.890 ESSV%). They're not going to be a threat to the division title, but they will be a thorn in the side for all teams in the Atlantic. Good thing the Devils have already played them four times.
As for the Devils...
The Devils still have 29 games left to play this season. While I can't exactly tell if playing a certain team would be a "guaranteed victory", some teams at the bottom of the standings could just be so low in the standings because they're unlucky (i.e. Philadelphia), while other teams at the bottom could be there because they're actually bad (i.e. Buffalo). The same goes for the top of the standings- some teams are good (Pittsburgh, Boston), while some are just lucky (i.e. Toronto). Here are the teams the Devils have to play over the remainder of the season and how many games they have against them remaining-
Boston- 2, Buffalo- 3, Carolina- 2, Florida- 3, Montreal- 2, Islanders- 1, Rangers- 3, Ottawa- 2, Philadelphia- 3, Pittsburgh- 1, Tampa- 2, Toronto- 3, Washington- 0, Winnipeg- 2
Of the 29 games left, the Devils have 10 games against "good" teams (as in PDO close to 1000 and > 51% FenClose)- Carolina, Boston, Pittsburgh, Montreal and the Rangers. The Devils getting 3 of their 4 games against Pittsburgh early on will help them down the stretch- they're always going to be a challenge. However, only getting one game against the Rangers when they were looking human makes up for that- and I'm guessing the Rangers will make a move to improve their bottom 6 or grab a depth defenseman. Boston's low ESSV% is more of a product of their lack of games played, it should improve once they start playing again. Ottawa's riding a sky-high ESSV% right now, however they're a good possession team (53.3% Fenclose), which makes up for it.
The Devils have 7 games against the PDO driven Lightning (11% ESSH, 1022 PDO, 45.3 FenClose), Senators (943 ESSV) and Leafs (1030 PDO, 45.5% FenClose). They could either be very good or very bad. The Lightning stand out simply because that 11% ES Shooting isn't going to last. Having a shooter of Steven Stamkos' calibre helps, but the rest of the team will regress at some point. The Sens are lucky in the sense that they're getting insane goaltending, but their poor shooting percentage is bound to regress and they're a good possession team (53.34% fenclose).The Leafs goaltending has improved, but they're suffering from the classic case of Minnesota Wilditis- unsustainable goaltending numbers and poor possession numbers.
The other games are against legitimately bad teams or average teams. Philadelphia, Winnipeg and the Islanders will be the toughest of the bunch- especially with the Flyers on the upswing. Buffalo and Florida are legitimately bad teams (PDO close to 1000+ bad Fenwick).
The schedule itself has 6 sets of back to backs- with three of them (3/4 and 3/5, 3/9 and 3/10, 3/15/16) in 12 days and 4 in the month of March. That's definitely not going to help- however, the Devils travel schedule will be very favourable. After Thursday's game in Winnipeg, the Devils won't have any significant travel (unless you count the trips to Florida as "significant").
Of course, there's still the factors that aren't in the Devils'control, like players getting hurt in a game or a sudden streak of bad goaltending or poor shooting that will cost them some games. While the Devils 1008 PDO might be good in the sense that they're not benefiting from luck, it could either way- they could get lucky or unlucky.
To be honest, the possibility of winning the Atlantic division does exist. Until the Penguins (or another team) manage to get some room between themselves and the Devils, the possibility won't go away. However, I will say that it's easier said than done.