Can the Devils really make the playoffs?
By Stu Hackel
Well, whaddaya know...The Devils won again on Tuesday night, a 4-3 win over the Thrashers. That's three in a row, eight of their last 10 and, since Jan. 9, a record of 23-3-2. Project that over the entire schedule and (my math might be a little off here) it would make for something like a 69-8-5 mark that would be the greatest single-season record in the history of the NHL. (The current mark will probably forever be the 1976-77 Canadiens' 60-8-12 back in the days when that last column represented ties played in games that ended after 60 minutes. Who knows what those Habs might have done in OT and the postgame skills competition?)
The problem, of course, is that prior to Jan. 9, the Devils went 10-29-2. At that time they were last in the Eastern Conference, 27 points out of eighth spot. So they've made up substantial ground. But despite this incredible run, they are still six points south of a berth, sitting in 10th place. Those who compile such things put their chances of making the playoffs at only seven percent. That's certainly a lot better than their zero percent on Jan 9, but it's a snapshot based on the entire season, not the way that Jersey has been trending.
"We found ourselves in this position because we put ourselves in it," GM Lou Lamoriello said earlier today on the NHL Network (video). Yet, there's some unmistakable magic going on in Newark (and that's a sentence not often written in conjunction with the NHL) as this streak has gone along. Before Tuesday's win, the Devils' last four victories had all came after regulation -- three overtime and one shootout . Nineteen of the 28 games in their streak have been one-goal margins, and the Devils have won 15 of them. Another two were two-goal games with empt-net tallies and the Devils won both.
Asked about the magic, Lamoriello said, "I try not to think about anything like that." He's just enjoying the success, but pins it on the work of coach Jacques Lemaire, and the rest of the staff who keep the players focused on playing one game at a time. (Lemaire spoke about the one-match-at-a-time approach in this video of his postgame remarks). That's as good an explanation as any, considering that there are few coaches in history better than Lemaire. And it may be no coincidence that both he and assistant coach Larry Robinson played on those Montreal teams of the '70s that set records for greatness and they have a handle on how to get consistently high-level performances from their players.
What is working for the Devils is what has always worked for them: an unwavering commitment to a defensive system that allowed Atlanta, a team that averages over 31 shots on goal per game, only 23, including two in the second period and nine in the third.
When Tuesday night's game began, the Devils were in the 12th spot in the east, trailing Atlanta and Toronto, who were tied with 80 points, two ahead of New Jersey. The Thrashers took an early 2-0 lead, but that was no problem for Lemaire's team. A Travis Zajac goal brought the Devils to within one before the first period ended, and then in the second, the game's tide turned on this sequence:
Blake Wheeler threw the puck in front for Andrew Ladd to redirect behind Marty Brodeur, but when Ladd couldn't connect, it went into the corner and caromed the other way. Watch the great transition by New Jersey as three backcheckers -- Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus -- all turn tightly and head the opposite way, setting up and 3-on-2 break in which Elias passes to Rolston while Zubrus drives to the net and gets the attention of the two Thrashers defensemen so Elias could isolate himself for a return pass from Rolston and score the tying goal.
This game didn't need extra time, but it did need a disallowed tying goal, and for Brodeur to make some good stops, and for Ilya Kovalchuk to get an empty-netter in the last minute. The win put the Devils above .500 in wins vs. regulation losses for the first time this season.
“It’s pretty amazing what we’ve accomplished,” Brodeur said afterward (quoted by Rich Chere in The Newark Star Ledger. “I think we’ve gotten ourselves in a fun situation where every game counts now. Thirty or 40 games ago, it was, ‘How are we going to play the second half? Are we going to just kill time and finish the season?’ We were able to turn it around. We’re definitely a long ways from where we want to be. At least now every game counts. The next two weeks are big for us. We’ll go out and try to win our games and see what other teams are doing. We might have a shot at making the playoffs."
To make the playoffs, however, the Devils have to continue to win and two teams ahead of them must fall behind. That's the tricky part because the ones ahead are more consistent than the teams they've passed. The Hurricanes are four points ahead of New Jersey and they beat the Sabres, who are in eighth, on Tuesday night. Buffalo is six points ahead of New Jersey. The Rangers, who also won on Tuesday, are in seventh, eight points up on the Devils. Montreal, 13 points ahead in sixth, would have to totally collapse, although the Habs are decimated by injuries.
The schedule may not work in the Devils' favor. New Jersey has 12 games left, seven at home, and face four opponents who are currently out of the playoff picture. The Devils have some tough games, too, with the Bruins twice, the Penguins twice, the Capitals, and one each against the Sabres and Rangers.
Carolina has 11 games remaining, eight at home, and five against non-playoff teams (including their next three). The Hurricanes have three left against Tampa Bay, including a home-and-home followed by a game in Washington. The Red Wings and Sabres are also on their schedule.
The Rangers have only 10 games left, six at home, five against non-playoff teams (although two are the rival Islanders and Devils). Their tougher opponents include the Bruins, Flyers, Sabres and Penguins.
But Lemaire isn't overly concerned about other teams, at least not yet. In his postgame remarks, he didn't know that, with the win, the Devils had vaulted over Atlanta and Toronto into 10th. "That's good," he laughed. "We're moving up. You can't be disappointed with that."
Then he reviewed some of the tough foes ahead on the schedule and concluded, "To me, it's very simple: To put less pressure on the players. That's really important. And put their mind where their mind should be -- on one game."
It's not time, at least not yet, to talk about completing these giant steps to the postseason.