I really wanted to write this up next week but with Ilya Kovalchuk injured for two to four weeks, now is a good time as any to highlight the remaining five weeks of the regular season for the New Jersey Devils. With Kovalchuk out, future games are expected to be more difficult for the Devils. As they should since he's an important part of the team's offense. But what are those games in the future? And what will the Devils need to do anyway regardless of Kovalchuk's status to get into the playoffs?
Here's the current situation for the Devils: Before Sunday night's games are played, the Devils currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 15-11-6. They have 36 points in 32 games and 13 of their wins are in regulation or overtime. The Devils are 10-5-2 at home and 5-6-4 on the road. Way back in January, I wrote that the Devils would need 56 points to safely get into the playoffs and 54 to just get in based on past seasons. It appears that's just about right. According to Sports Club Stats' page for the Devils, 56 points would be a lock with high percentages for 54 and 53 points earned. Thanks to Peter Carnbro for pointing that out to me on Twitter. So the Devils need to earn 20 points in their remaining 16 games to hit that 56-point mark. They may truly need only 17 or 18 points based on current percentages to get in, but it appears they will need win over half of their remaining games regardless.
They are one point behind Toronto who has played 32 games. They are four points ahead of eighth place Carolina and ninth place Rangers. Both of those teams have only played 30 games so games in hand could make up the current gap. While Buffalo (30 points in 32 games), Washington (29 points in 31 games), and Islanders (29 points in 31 games) lurk in the distance, it's in the best interest for the Devils to root against Toronto, Carolina, and the Rangers (duh) in the coming weeks. If Ottawa drops, then them too. Of course, that presumes the Devils do the job.
I do look at the division every week but let's look at the remaining five weeks of the 2013 season just for the Devils.
|3/24 - 3/30||@ OTT||@ TBL||@ FLA|
|3/31 - 4/6||vs. NYI||@ BOS||vs. TOR|
|4/7 - 4/13||@ BUF||vs. BOS||vs. OTT|
|4/14 - 4/20||@ TOR||@ PHI||vs. FLA|
|4/21 - 4/27||@ NYR||vs. MTL||vs. PIT||@ NYR|
The Devils only have one four-game calender week game left and three back-to-backs. At least until April 20, the team will have a good number of days off to practice, rest, and prepare in the schedule. They'll also have the time to do some scoreboard watching. Again: the general rule of thumb is to cheer on those playing against the Rangers, Canes, Leafs, and/or anyone else in that #6 to #9 range.
They will play seven home games and nine road games in the next five weeks. Given the split, it means the Devils have to be much better on the road. Or do they? Their close-score Fenwick% on the road is actually just a little less than their home games. According to Behind the Net, they're still a strong possession team at evens at over 53% both home and away. The improvement will have to come elsewhere, such as on special teams or actually scoring goals - the big sticking point with this team as they still have one of lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentages in the NHL. Improvement in that category would be a big help. Of course, I've been hoping for improvement in shooting percentage to come for over a month now and it hasn't happened yet.
In terms of opponents left, there sure are some doozies remaining. There are two games against Ottawa, a team that has been great at home and just makes things difficult for their opponents. There are two games against Boston, a team the Devils haven't matched up well with in, what, the last three seasons? There are two games against percentage-riding Toronto, so who knows what they'll be like in the future. Right there, that's six difficult-on-paper games to get a result against. For a team that needs 10 wins or less plus post-regulation losses, the Devils need to figure something out in those games to get said results.
That last week of the season is brutal. While Pittsburgh and Montreal should have their tickets punched by the end of April, they're not going to be any less good. Two road games against Our Hated Rivals is bad enough. The Rangers could very well need points as badly as New Jersey might. It may make for dramatic action for the neutral but I'd rather save the drama for the postseason. In between those games is one against Pittsburgh and one against Montreal. Both the Pens and Habs will have their playoff situations set by then, but games against really good teams tend not to be gimmies even if they may not have much to play for. If the Devils are in a spot where they need to do really well in that final week, then they may be in real trouble. It's imperative that they get most of the 18-20 points they need in the four weeks prior.
On paper, the Devils do at least get a couple of games against teams that may be out of the playoff picture. They'll have two games against Florida and one game against Tampa Bay, the Islanders, Flyers, and Buffalo. The Isles and Sabres may be close to the edge of that picture and, who knows, maybe the Bolts and Flyers make a late surge. Still, those are the games the Devils really gotta-win. They're not must-wins in the pure sense but they can only help themselves with getting results out of those games. If they do that, it'll make their path to 54-56 points that much easier given their other opponents.
There are two important variables for the Devils in these coming weeks. The first affects everyone: the trade deadline. This year's trade deadline is at 3 PM EDT on April 3. The Devils will have four games to determine whether their current roster is good enough for the stretch run of 12 games in April. We shall see what Lou does prior to that deadline. The second is Kovalchuk. He's out for 2-4 weeks. If he's out for two weeks, then he could be back for the final eight or nine games of the season, fully rested, and have a short time to get in form. If it's for the full four, then that brings him back for that brutal week. His return would help, but the Devils will have to make do without him should they want the nine to ten wins they need to get into the post season. The more they get now is less pressure when he does return. Again, don't leave it to that brutal week at that end of the season.
As I said back in January, this is full-on A.B.E.P. time. Always Be Earning Points. If the Devils have to lose, I'd rather take their opposition or get dragged into overtime and take the point. It may make the standings situation messier and ROW may not be on the Devils' side. But getting the points at all is more important. If the Devils' closest competition in the East falters, then the Devils really just need to get enough to get in. That's the overall goal: to get in. 9-7, 10-6, or some similar combination is the goal. If the team can continue playing well in the possession game, the defensive end doesn't make too many errors, and the team's shooting percentage improves, then I think the Devils can get it done. They are all important games now, and it starts tonight. Let's go, Devils.