The New Jersey Devils
missed the postseason in 2011 for the first time in 15 years, but that won't be the case this season. The Devils have become the fourth Eastern Conference team -- all from the Atlantic Division -- to clinch a playoff spot.
How did they get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Here are some reasons:
1. The resurgence of Ilya Kovalchuk
-- In any other season, Kovalchuk would be getting a lot more support for the Hart Trophy. He's eighth in the NHL in scoring with 75 points in 72 games, and only Evgeni Malkin
(1.43), Claude Giroux
(1.19) Steven Stamkos
(1.18) and Jason Spezza
(1.07) are averaging more points per game than Kovalchuk's 1.04. Kovalchuk has 11 goals in the shootout, three more than his closest competitors, and has only failed on three attempts. Last season, Kovalchuk struggled early and finished with 60 points, his worst total since his rookie season in 2001-02.
2. Success in the shootout
-- The Devils have 12 shootout victories, by far the most in the League (two teams have nine wins). Along with Kovalchuk's dominance in the breakaway competition, Zach Parise
has scored eight times on 16 attempts. Goaltender Martin Brodeur
is 7-2 while backup Johan Hedberg
is 5-2. Criticize the shootout all you want, but it's part of the game and the Devils have exceled at it.
3. The NHL's best penalty kill
-- There hasn't been a PK unit this dominant in a long time. The Devils lead the NHL in shorthanded goals with 14, three more than second-place Carolina and five more than third-place Pittsburgh. Rookie Adam Henrique
leads the team with 4 shorthanded goals while Parise and Kovalchuk have 3 apiece. The Devils have killed 89.6 percent of power plays, the best mark since the expansion era of 1967-68.
4. The health of Zach Parise
-- The Devils' captain played in just 13 games last season, a major reason for the team missing the postseason. This season, he hasn't missed a game and has reached the 30-goal mark for the fifth time in his career. He hasn't been as effective offensively as he was in his previous two healthy seasons, but he has been very good on the penalty kill and tenacious on the forecheck as always.
5. A rejuvenated Patrik Elias
-- A case can be made that after Kovlachuk, it's Elias who has been the Devils' best offensive player. He reached the 70-point mark for only the second time since 2003-04 and the natural winger has played his fair share of solid minutes at center with Travis Zajac
and Jacob Josefson
lost for extended periods of time.
6. Rookies shining in big roles
-- Henrique is battling for the scoring lead among NHL rookies, while defenseman Adam Larsson
has been playing nearly 21 minutes per game as a teenager. Henrique has found himself centering a line with Kovalchuk and Parise at times this season and has displayed the skill level to keep up with the stars. Larsson has had some struggles down the stretch, but he hasn't looked out of place all that often during his first NHL season and is fifth among rookie d-men in scoring with 18 points.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo