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The Devils' biggest obstacles are out of their control

by David Kalan
If you've paid any attention to hockey in the past month there are two things you are certain to know.

1) Hockey teams play for a three-feet-tall trophy known as "The Stanley Cup".

2) The Devils are on one unbelievable tear right now.

At this point, rehashing New Jersey's remarkable play in more than one sentence -- the one time League-basement residents have lopped 19 points off what was considered a terminal playoff deficit -- would be redundant. The Devils' 20-2-2 stretch is almost as absurd as it is amazing, but the unfortunate truth for New Jersey is that the rain that may come down on the Garden State's parade is most likely to come from, well, anywhere other than the Garden State.

New Jersey has shown no signs of slowing its current pace after Sunday's 3-2 shootout win over the Islanders, who are on an amazing run of their own, but even with the Devils' deficit between them and the eighth spot down to just eight points, a look at the schedule shows that at this point their playoff fate is simply not in their control.

The 7th and 8th seeds in the East appear to be up for grabs still and if we include the Rangers and Sabres, who currently hold those spots, there are five teams competing ahead of the Devils for a playoff berth. Even if we take the fast-fading Thrashers out of the equation, Toronto, Carolina, Buffalo and New York all stand in New Jersey's way.

What makes this a significant hurdle for the Devils is not how many teams they have to hop over, but how little impact they can have on the race. New Jersey plays just three games in its final 17 against teams it is directly chasing in the playoff race -- one each with Buffalo, New York and Toronto.

However, while they troll through their remaining slate, the teams above the Devils play a total of six games against each other. One could argue that they are beating up on one another as the Devils get a free game to gain ground on someone, but as time starts to run low, those six games will loom large for New Jersey because in each of them someone has to win. That means a minimum of 12 points are guaranteed to be sprinkled across the teams the Devils are chasing.

Toss in that any or all of those games could be three-pointers -- a virtual certainty as more than 23% of games this year have gone to overtime -- and as many as 18 points could be thrown into the mixer.

The Devils' schedule does provide them with several advantages -- it's relatively soft, 9 of their 17 remaining games are at home and one is across the river in Manhattan and the team never leaves the Eastern time zone -- but the simple fact is that all they can really do is win and then hope. In addition, while the Devils have a game in hand on nearly each team they're chasing, and have three games in hand on the Rangers, the team that has been the best of the lot lately is Buffalo, which has played the same 65 games New Jersey has.

For an indicator of how difficult the task is, note that in the past ten games, when the Devils went 9-1-0, they picked up a grand total of four points. Coach Jacques Lemaire acknowledged as much Monday morning when he told reporters, "It's not that you don't believe. The thing is, games are running out."

Indeed time is running short. Completing the Devils' miracle rally is not impossible, but despite the progress it remains a tall order. The only thing certain is that if New Jersey continues to win at such an astounding pace, there is going to be a lot of scoreboard watching.

The Devils will just be watching the scoreboard in multiple places.
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