While the numbers still don't look great for the New Jersey Devils, there may be reason to believe their miracle could come true.
"I would say with (Sunday's) win and looking at their next five games, with 12 games left in the season New Jersey could be in great position to hunt down the teams in front of them," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "Remember, they still have three games in hand on the Rangers. They play the Rangers (April 9) and that could be a massive game for both teams."
The Devils are 20-2-2 since Jan. 9 and still sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot, but that's the bad news. The good news is that each of their next five games will be against teams (Ottawa, Atlanta, the Islanders) that, like them, are also outside of the top eight.
Sparking the turnaround in Newark
NHL Network analysts Craig Button and Kevin Weekes each have their own theories as to why the Devils have been able to jump into the playoff race with a historic second half run. NHL.com spoke to both the former NHL general manager (Button) and the former Devils goalie (Weekes) talk about the Devils and their 20-2-2 stretch.
Here is how they break down the Devils' run:
"Jacques Lemaire has a vast amount of experience and the biggest thing a head coach has to learn is what not to do, not what to do. That's what head coaching experience gives you. I watch now and Jacques has Brian Rolston on the point on the power play and he knows that is what Brian does well so he puts him in that position. Coaching is not about telling your players what to do, it's knowing what your players can do and asking them to do it. Then it's helping them bring that into the team game. Jacques has a plan for the team and he understands what the players can do, and then he incorporates that into the overall team plan. Just look, he doesn't ask Patrik Elias to go hard on the forecheck and bang the heck out of people.
"When you watch the Devils, watch this: A key part to moving the puck is getting to position quickly, so if the puck goes into the corner and Defenseman A is racing for it and being forechecked hard, the first thing he has to do is get to the puck but the Defenseman B has to work hard to get into position. Jacques Lemaire thinks it's as important to work hard to get into position as it is to skate hard with the puck. Get into position and get the puck moving. Watch how quickly the Devils' defensemen work down low, the partner play, quick to the puck and the other guy gets to position quickly so he can receive the puck and move out in uniform. Now you're coming up the ice, and you back off the other team.
"All these things sound subtle and they are subtle, but they're so important. Jacques understands that and he understands how to instill those things in a team."
"The main thing with them now is the way they defend. They defend with five and they're not giving up the neutral zone as easily when they defend. When they get into their own zone they are defending with five. There are not as many instances with double and triple coverage as there was early in the season. And, when they attack they attack as a wave of five and they're actually making plays through the neutral zone now. They wanted to be more of an offensively aggressive team, but now they are attacking through the zone with five and generating speed. Earlier in the year there was a lot of one-on-one play and a lot of 3-on-5 offensive play. Now not only are they defending with five but attacking with five and they are making short passes. They don't have the defensive personnel to be making long passes. There ability to breakout of their zone from longer range isn't what it was before and they've compensated for that by making shorter passes.
"Jacques is brilliant. There is no question about it. He's brilliant, so I give him a ton of credit. However, what I will say is no matter who is coaching New Jersey it should all lead to Jacques Lemaire. If whenever he decides to retire they have to get a cardboard cutout and a tape recorder of his voice and just put it on the bench. No matter what happens they will always default to Jacques Lemaire, his imprint and his philosophy. He is the right fit for that team.
"I think they're going to get in."
-- Dan Rosen
Beyond that the Devils still have to play nine games against teams that currently occupy a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but over the last two months they are 9-1 against the East's current top eight and 13-1 against the teams ahead of them in the standings. Tampa Bay is the only team to beat them, but the Devils also topped the Lightning three times.
"The fact that they go 20-2-2, I don't know that I've ever seen anything like this," Button said. "You talk about a tale of two seasons, wow. I just can't fathom it. With Jacques Lemaire, when I watch what he's doing with this team, I just shake my head."
Button's colleague at the NHL Network, analyst Kevin Weekes, is doing the same. Weekes, a former Devils' goalie, lauds Lemaire as "brilliant," and he's a firm believer that New Jersey will make it to the playoffs because of the way the Devils are trending vs. the teams they're competing with.
The Devils have 18 points over their last 10 games. That's three more than the Maple Leafs, the next hottest team among the six competitors for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres have 12 points in the last 10 games while the Hurricanes have 11, the Rangers 10 and the Thrashers just seven.
"When you look at the teams ahead of them right now, I'm telling you, I'm not convinced that any of those teams are going to get in," Weekes told NHL.com. "Carolina doesn't convince me. Buffalo is rolling, but I'm not convinced that Buffalo is going to get in because Ryan Miller hasn't been Ryan Miller as much this year. Atlanta is done and I think the Leafs are going to fall short because they don't have enough depth at the end.
"I see Jersey at 12 leaping Atlanta, leaping Toronto and maybe finishing ahead of Carolina and possibly Buffalo. They're just playing better than those teams."
Button said the Devils worst enemy will be the three-point game. Outside of upcoming games against Atlanta, they won't have the direct ability to influence the teams ahead of them until they play at Buffalo on March 26. They have to hope the teams ahead of them cancel each other out.
Carolina and Buffalo face each other twice before the end of the season. The Rangers and Sabres face each other once. Toronto still has to play the Sabres twice and the Hurricanes once.
"If (Carolina and Buffalo) split regulation wins and get two points each, and the Devils win two corresponding games, now the Devils have gained two points on both the Sabres and Hurricanes," Button said. "The only thing the Devils don't want is a three-point game. That just means everyone keeps inching ahead."
According to statistical analysis kept by Button, the Devils' odds of reaching the playoffs have increased by almost six percent since Jan. 27. Button's data suggests the Devils would have to win 76.5 percent of the rest of their games in order to qualify for the playoffs, but he couches that by saying the teams they're chasing can't get hot at the same time.
Button uses winning percentage (wins vs. regulation/OT/shootout losses) to chart his data. He suggests the cutoff for a playoff berth in the East is currently right around 88-89 points, because that's about how many the Rangers would finish with if they continued to win at the rate they have all season (51.47 percent of the time). Buffalo would finish with 90 or 91 points if it won at its seasonal rate, according to Button's analysis. The Sabres have three games in hand on the Rangers.
Three-point games could sway the percentages, but Button doesn't factor them in because they are impossible to predict.
"What I do is basically go with the body of work, what the teams' winning percentage has been to this point, and if they play at this winning percentage what do they need to do to gain that eighth spot for the playoffs," Button said. "The teams below have to play at a better winning percentage. The Devils on Feb. 1 needed .820 winning percentage the rest of the way to make the playoffs. Now they've done that and only have to play at a 76 percent clip. So their odds have improved.
"At the halfway point of the season they were slim and none. Now they're not none anymore, and they're better than slim."