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Once forgotten, playoffs now possible for Devils

by Dave Lozo
The New Jersey Devils were dead and buried on Jan. 8. They had been eulogized and lowered into the ground as they sat in last place in the League standings, 27 points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Six weeks later, they are back from the dead.

The Devils may have had barely discernible vital signs during the first half of the season, but now they are showing signs of life as the season hits the quarter-pole.

To put that 27-point deficit at the halfway point in perspective, it's the equivalent of a baseball team sitting about 26 games out of the playoffs after 81 games. Teams just don't come back from that.

But the Devils have caught fire with a 16-1-2 run in their last 19 games to climb within 9 points of a playoff spot. It's a run where so many things have gone right for the Devils that even the staunchest of atheists might wonder if there has been some divine intervention.

Jan. 20 -- The Devils, who entered their game against the Penguins with a 62-31 disadvantage in points, won 2-0. The Devils caught a gargantuan break because it was the first time the Penguins played a game without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin since both were drafted.

Feb. 1 -- It was the Devils' first game after the All-Star break and it looked like it was destined for overtime late in the third period. But luck was on their side with 5:43 left in regulation when Dainius Zubrus' pass deflected off Ottawa Senators defenseman Chris Phillips and past goaltender Robin Lehner to give the Devils a 2-1 victory.

Feb. 10 --
It's not as if the Toronto Maple Leafs made a "dump" trade a day earlier, but they just dealt defenseman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul. That meant the Leafs had to call up young defenseman Keith Aulie, who was playing in just his 13th NHL game. When Ilya Kovalchuk scored the winner in overtime, an out-of-position Aulie screened goaltender James Reimer on the shot that would give the Devils a key extra point.

Feb. 11 -- Sometimes it's about catching hot teams at the right time. The Sharks came into Prudential Center on a 9-0-1 tear but were playing their third road game in four nights. The Devils were on the ropes for two periods, but used two third-period goals to beat the weary Sharks 2-1.

Feb. 23 -- Jacques Lemaire cut short the morning skate before the Devils' game with the Stars, saying his players looked like they were on vacation in Hawaii. It looked like nothing much had changed when the game started. It was a 0-0 contest until luck smiled upon the Devils with 5:37 left in regulation. Ilya Kovalchuk's stick exploded on a one-time attempt near the blue line. The puck traveled at a quarter of its normal speed, but it was enough to throw off goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who slid out of position and couldn't stop Nick Palmieri's deflection that resulted in the game's only goal.

What makes all that even more amazing is the Devils have done all this without Zach Parise, who is arguably their best player. The four-time 30-goal scorer hasn't played since injuring his knee on Oct. 31 and likely won't be back until some point in late-March if at all.

As magical as this run has been, it's important to realize it took a stretch like this just to get the Devils to within 9 points of the playoffs. Considering the greatest deficit ever overcome to reach the playoffs was 12 points, accomplished by the New York Islanders in 1993-94, the Devils still have a long way to go.

Through the same amount of games during the Islanders' comeback from the brink, there were already 6 points out of eighth with only two teams in between. Since the introduction of the shootout (and three-point game) in 2005-06, the biggest deficit overcome is 11 points, done by the San Jose Sharks in 2005-06 and the St. Louis Blues in 2008-09.

With the Devils playing in an era where the teams ahead of them can lose and earn a point, the 27-point hole they dug themselves seems even deeper. When the teams the Devils are chasing face each other over the final six weeks, there's a chance both can pick up points no matter the outcome.

But the Devils' remaining schedule makes what seemed impossible in early January look very possible now.

The average record of teams the Devils will face over their final 22 games is 29-23-7. Included in those 23 games are 11 against teams who are currently outside of playoff position; the Devils will play the Islanders three times, the Senators twice, the reeling Thrashers twice and the Leafs and Panthers once each.

The Penguins, who have been besieged by injuries, appear twice on the Devils' schedule the rest of the way. If Sidney Crosby hasn't returned from his concussion, those are two games the Devils can consider more winnable than usual.

The Devils have a home/road split of 12/10 over those last 22 games and none of them will involve a trip outside of the Eastern time zone.

Many believe it will take 90 points for the Devils to reach the postseason. That means they need to collect 34 of a possible 44 points remaining (17-5-0 or 16-4-2 would work).

One look at their second-half turnaround makes it look like anything is possible. Consider some of these jaw-dropping numbers:
  • Defenseman Henrik Tallinder was -26 in the first half; he is +18 since.
  • Kovalchuk was -30 in the first half; he is +10 since.
  • The Devils' team goals-against average was 3.12 in the first half and 1.61 since. Johan Hedberg is 8-0-1 with a 1.32 GAA and .947 save percentage during the streak.
  • Brian Rolston, who the Devils placed on waivers and was not claimed, had 2 goals and 3 assists in 24 games. During the second half, he has 8 goals and 9 assists in 19 games.
There's still a lot of work to be done for the Devils to pull off what would be the greatest in-season comeback in sports history, but if they do overcome the 27-point deficit, "28 Points Later" would be a great name for the documentary detailing their rise from the dead.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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