Well, I hope you can excuse another lengthy absence of mine. I’ve been organizing a few things for some internship positions I’m aiming for and have had a heavy workload in school and at work, not to mention had a couple of write ups, but ended up dismantling and eventually discontinuing them for the usual reasons. So last night was a continuation of typical “hot” Devils hockey since the start of the 2010 year. They play a pair of great games where the team looks strong, confident, is scoring goals, and plays a strong defensive game. Subsequent to that (last night), they play a frustratingly unpleasant contest, resulting in another loss to a non-playoff team. The Devil’s struggles against non-playoff teams have been well documented this season, having gone 11-12 against non-playoff teams, or teams that currently sit outside the top eight since January.
With two games remaining, the Devils are engaged in a struggle for the division title, having a thirteenth consecutive playoff appearance and home ice advantage secured, with their final seeding not set in stone just yet. While it’s ultimately up to the team how far they’re willing and able to go in this year’s playoffs, where the Devils should be looked upon to prove they’re still a true contender, where they finish in the standings and who they open the post-season against could potentially make or break this team’s chances. Having said that, I think the Devils are in a make or break situation when their potential scenarios are presented.
As it stands, the Devils can face one of five teams in the first round: the Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, or Montreal Canadiens. Should the Devils lose their hold on the division, they’d finish no lower than fourth and take on the Senators, who has the only stagnant seeding in the Eastern Conference at fifth place, aside from Washington. When you look at the big picture, I don’t see missing out on the division being as catastrophic as some Devils fans might perceive. At worst, it’ll be one less banner that won’t hang from the rafters at the Rock and I think the pressure of being entitled division champions going into the playoffs is unnecessary pressure for the Devils to carry. The Devils fared relatively well against Ottawa, going 3-1 for the year, scoring ten goals and giving up eight. Having said that, the Devils look like two different teams since January, when they suffered their only loss to the Sens (3-0 shutout). Since their last meet, both teams have made significant roster additions and endured their own struggles and triumphs. Although there’s a differentiation of five points and two wins between them, the Sens currently outscore the Devils by ten goals, but have forty-four more against.
Numbers aside, I think the Devils match up fairly well against the Sens. While Ottawa’s offense appears more spread out as far as their contributors go, I think it’s safe to say the Devils have the upper hand in their top six, who make up most of their offensive numbers, while receiving streaky, but stellar support from the rest of the offense, who additionally do a lot of things that don’t show up on the score sheet. Both teams have an array of seasoned veterans with plenty of playoff and general career experience, but one advantage the Devils have is the familiarity their veterans have with each other and the system they play. While his ability to perform in the playoffs has been questioned considering his recent performances, I can say in confidence Martin Brodeur gives the Devils a huge advantage in net with his skill and experience.
While the fourth seeding could give the Devils a manageable opponent to open the post-season against, their true test could come in the following round, where facing a division champion could be inevitable. Although the Devils fared relatively well against the Capitals, Sabres, and Penguins (who would logically win the Atlantic if the Devils don’t), going a combined 10-3 against all three teams (one game remaining against the Sabres), the regular season and playoffs feature two entirely different brands of hockey that can be of little relevance to each other…also keep in mind the Devils played ten of these thirteen games prior to January, when they were considered a current top three team in the league. I’m not saying the Devils will walk over these teams should they be encountered in the playoffs, rather this time of year offers a clean slate for all sixteen teams participating in their quest for hockey’s ultimate prize.
Should the Devil’s current stance in the conference go unchanged between now and the conclusion of the regular season, the Devils will hang another banner celebrating another division title, which would be their fourth in five seasons. As of now, it’s uncertain who they’ll face in the first round, but it’s currently between four teams: Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, and the Rangers. Out of these four, I’m sure there’s a mutual dread amongst Devils fans of the Flyers securing that seventh seed, should the Devils divisional reign continue (this also applies if the Devils finish third, as the Flyers are capable of finishing no higher than sixth). Regardless of injuries or lack net minding quality, the Flyers had the Devil’s number this year, going 5-1. Aside from verifying this year’s mastery of the Devils, they showed they can beat the Devils in any form, from rallying after being down by two goals to plainly blowing the Devils out. What’s further discouraging is even if the Flyers advance no further, their fans will be satisfied enough in seeing their team fully completing their mastery over one of their arch rivals.
The Rangers would be an interesting match up and while the Devils were able to defeat the Rangers in the regular season, it’s ultimately a series I’d rather pass on seeing. I described this Tri-State rivalry as “erratic” because it seemed to me a story unfolded every time these teams squared off. No matter how they fare in the regular season, the Rangers seem to have a psychological advantage over the Devils, whether its the antics of super pest Sean Avery, Henrik Lundqvist’s heightened enthusiasm he normally brings against the Devils, or the abundance of Ranger fans at the Garden…and the Rock, the Devils don’t want to face the Rangers if they’re looking to open the playoffs against a team they can just “go through the motions” with. By that I mean play a team without abnormally increased pressure from the local media and dealing with the combined stresses of winning a seven-game series, along with additional dramas that could unfold on and off the ice. Regardless of the outcome, this series would undoubtedly physically and mentally exhaust the Devils, something they can’t afford much of for the sake of goaltender Martin Brodeur, whose name we all want to see etched in the Stanley Cup at least once more before he completes his glamorous career.
Although the Devils had a good track record against the Bruins, the defensive styles of both teams resulted in close, but slow-paced, low-scoring games. Between their rash of injuries and not fully recovering from the loss of Phil Kessel, the Bruins struggled all season after running away with the Eastern Conference last year. After losing center Marc Savard at the hands of a viciously unnecessary head shot, I truly admire the efforts their team’s made to get where they are right now. Although most of the players on this Bruins team were a part of last year’s dominant campaign, I think the loss of Kessel and absence of Savard affects how deep of a run the Bruins will be allowed to make by the factoring exterior forces. As of now, I’d like to say the Devils overpower the Bruins offensively, although Boston has the superior blue line, especially when you consider they have an identifiable anchorman on the blue line in Zdeno Chara. With a stronger defense corps than the Devils, it can also give them the upper hand in making their system more effective, which certainly put a stranglehold on the Devil’s ability to obtain leads against the Bruins, let alone run away with one.
Since signing with Boston, Zdeno Chara, Boston’s captain, and current candidate as their arguable best skater, is reputed to disappear come playoff time, accumulating only two goals, six points, with an even rating in eighteen playoff games he’s played as a Bruin. While the play of Tim Thomas has been questionable in recent months, resulting in the rise of youngster Tuuka Rask, he has no prior playoff experience and has never been a looked upon starter for an NHL team for games of this nature. While the rest of the Bruins team’s provided significant support to get them where they are, the question marks in net, injury to their star forward, and reputation of their defensive anchorman come playoff time make the Bruins a relatively attractive team to open the playoffs against, but shouldn’t be taken lightly.
If the playoffs started today, the Devils would face off against the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs are like a seal is to a great white shark in that it’s their preferred prey of choice. There’s been more than enough evidence throughout his career that the Canadiens are Marty’s preferred team of choice to face, who always appears to bring his A-game. The Devils went 3-1 against the Habs this year, but didn’t defeat the Habs in swooping fashion like they’re accustomed to in past seasons. The Devils bested the Habs 2-1 in their first two meets (one having to go to overtime), losing 3-1 in their next meet, and defeating Montreal 4-2 to close out their seasonal series. The Habs struggled throughout the season due to a number of factors such as an injury bug outbreak that affected most of their core, adapting to a new coach and system, and their revamped roster taking time to gel and learn each other.
On paper, it would seem the Habs are superior to the Devils…you can’t even question their quality in net as the Habs have two proven goaltenders that have little, but valuable playoff experience, although it pales compared to Brodeur’s post-season accomplishments. Having said that, the Habs would be my top choice for the Devils to face, not that I’m underestimating their ability to play with the Devils, but between Brodeur’s tradition of bringing out his best play against the team of his hometown, and how this Canadiens team was pieced together over this past summer, while the Devils core has undergone significant but seemingly necessary change that didn’t affect the faces of their core, I can’t see any other team they’d be more prepared to open the playoffs against.
In addition, I think the Habs have some flaws the Devils could take advantage of, such as their lack of size up front and speed on the back line. Another factor that would make this series interesting is it would feature two ex-Devils in Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. While Gomez left in 2007 to pursue greener pastures and a chance to be a huge part in what initially seemed like a rising New York Rangers team, he only lasted two years before being dealt to the Habs in the 2009 summer. Overall, Gomez has had a decent year and has put up numbers typical of what he’s posted throughout his career. Feeling the need for change after being unable to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the past two seasons, the Devils cut ties with Gionta, who signed a five-year deal with Montreal this past summer. Although he’s only played in sixty games this year, Gionta has twenty-seven goals, nine of which were scored on the power play, and forty-five points. He’s quickly become a vital asset of the Montreal offense and a favorite of the mercilessly demanding Montreal fan base. While it wouldn’t factor much into determining a winner of the series, considering the history, it would make an interesting side story should these two teams face off.