Heading Down the Stretch: Looking at the Devils' Final 20 Games

Jim McIsaac

With the calendar turning over to March and the trade deadline about to pass, we are officially entering the final leg of the NHL season. So how does the Devils' schedule look and what are their chances of getting into the playoffs?

The New Jersey Devils have just passed the three-quarter mark of the season and they sit three points from the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With the trade deadline looming (and rumors swirling), nobody is sure if the Devils will make any moves, significant or otherwise, but either way, they remain in striking distance of a playoff spot with 20 games to go. So lets take a look at what exactly is in store for the team over the final month and a half of the regular season.

Remaining Schedule
Date Opponent Home/Away Conference Opp Pts Pct.
3/4/2014 DET Home East 0.567
3/7/2014 DET Away East 0.567
3/8/2014 CAR Home East 0.500
3/11/2014 PHI Away East 0.564
3/14/2014 FLA Away East 0.434
3/15/2014 TBL Away East 0.598
3/18/2014 BOS Home East 0.675
3/20/2014 MIN Home West 0.605
3/22/2014 NYR Home East 0.556
3/23/2014 TOR Home East 0.571
3/27/2014 PHX Home West 0.532
3/29/2014 NYI Away East 0.429
3/31/2014 FLA Home East 0.434
4/1/2014 BUF Away East 0.361
4/4/2014 WAS Home East 0.548
4/5/2014 CAR Away East 0.500
4/7/2014 CGY Home West 0.434
4/10/2014 OTT Away East 0.532
4/11/2014 NYI Home East 0.429
4/13/2014 BOS Home East 0.675

Schedule Difficulty

The average points percentage of their opponents over the last 20 games comes out to about .525, one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. The next two games against the Detroit Red Wings are obviously huge for the Devils. If they don't manage at least a split of those two games, they could be buried before this stretch run even starts. Looking past this week, though, there are very few top-flight teams left on the schedule, including only 3 with a  greater than .600 points percentage (BOS x 2, MIN). Outside of a tough 3-game stretch in mid-March against Tampa Bay, Boston, and Minnesota, the schedule is pretty cushy, with the toughest games being against the teams they are jockeying for playoff position with. Not to mention, six of their final 20 will come against bottom feeders with sub-.450 points percentages (FLA x 2, NYI x 2, BUF, CGY).

The specific 10-game stretch from 3/23 to 4/11 is particularly easy. If the team can get themselves within one or two points of the playoffs at the start of that stretch, I would definitely have to feel good about their chances at that point. The combined opponent points percentage over those 10 games is .477, and the 'best' team they face is Toronto. If they are in a good position going into that part of the schedule and fail to make the playoffs, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

Looking at the schedule from a possession stats perspective also comes up pretty favorably for the Devils. Travis Yost has a breakdown of the numbers here:

So the Devils have the fifth-easiest schedule by score-adjusted Fenwick % in the East, and many of their direct competitors for a playoff spot sit atop that chart. Unfortunately, the Wings and Rangers have it a bit easier than the Devils do, but strength of opponent is definitely working in their favor overall. Add in the fact that the Devils have 12 games at home and only 8 on the road and the schedule has set up for the Devils pretty favorably.

Games Against Direct Competition

The East has a huge logjam that has collected around the last few playoff spots and many of these teams will be battling one another. The teams I would consider to be competing for the final playoff spots include the Rangers, Flyers, Leafs, Red Wings, Capitals, Blue Jackets, and Senators. Yes, that comes out to half of the conference including the Devils, but that's how bunched up everything is right now, anyone could be in or out from that group when the dust settles.

The Devils have 17 games against the East remaining, though many of them come against teams who likely don't figure into their portion of the playoff picture. In all, the Devils have 7 games left on the schedule against the group I just laid out: the two versus Detroit this week, Philly next Tuesday, the Rangers and Leafs back-to-back on March 22nd/23rd, the Caps on April 4th, and Ottawa on the 10th. Every game is important at this stage, but these are especially crucial for the Devils, who have to make up ground on a lot of teams. This week's tilts versus Detroit are a perfect example: with two wins, the Devils could leap over Detroit in the standings; with two losses, they could be dead in the water. So, these 7 games are the ones you should definitely be circling on your calendars.

The bottom line is that even with the schedule lining up the way it is, the Devils have an uphill battle to the playoffs, especially with seemingly every game being of the 3-point variety. I think this is a decent team overall, but their lack of offense will make the margin of error slim. They have to better than just good over the last 6 weeks, they'll have to be great. Can the soft schedule help they do that? Maybe. But being optimistic, I'd put their chances at around 40-50% to make it. It's just so hard to make up ground once you've lost it in today's NHL (FWIW, SportsClubStats puts the Devils' chances at 41.6% right now).

Your Feelings

Taking a look at the schedule, what do you think of the Devils chances down the stretch? With the easier schedule, do they have a good shot at the playoffs? Are they cooked if they get swept this week? Will that 10-game landing spot toward the end of the season be enough to get them in? Who do you think are the final 8 in the East, ultimately? Comment with your thoughts below.

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