It's the best time of year!
Posted by Ryan Porth Labels: New Jersey Devils
Dead in the water. That’s what this New Jersey Devils club was just two months ago. Their season was practically over as they brought up the rear in the entire National Hockey League. But a coaching change and a trade later, the Devils find themselves making a late-season push for an improbable playoff berth.
When John MacLean was fired on Dec. 23, this Devils were 9-22-2. Things couldn’t get much worse; but they did in the days following the return of Jacques Lemaire, which included a 5-1 beat down at the hands of the Islanders. However, ever since the team readjusted to Lemaire’s trap system, they have been the hottest team in the league.
Last night’s shutout win in Dallas was New Jersey’s eighth consecutive victory, pushing their record to a remarkable 16-2-2 since they dealt captain Jamie Langenbrunner in early January.
As things stand now, Lemaire’s Devils are nine points out of the final playoff spot in the conference. With 22 games to go, a trip to the ‘second season’ is unlikely, but certainly not out of the question... not with the way they are playing, along with the teams in front of them.
Of the teams on the bubble in the Eastern Conference, none are playing great hockey right now. The Blueshirts and 'Canes have struggled since the All-Star break. Buffalo has dropped three straight after a hot streak. The Thrashers have been in free-fall mode since the midway point. This has opened up the door for the Devils (and Toronto, by the way) to rise from the dead and join the playoff race.
Eighth-seeded Carolina is currently on pace for 87 points, which would seemingly be the cut-off point. For the Devils, who have 56 points now, to surpass that total they’d have to rack up 32 points in their last 22 games – an estimated 15-5-2 record. Again, with the way things are going, that’s not impossible. Plus it’s not as if New Jersey would have to jump over a lot of playoff-caliber teams to reach the eighth seed.
Ilya Kovalchuk is starting to earn some of that money that was thrown his way over the summer. Most pundits scrutinized Kovalchuk’s every move in the first half of the season, but his game has rounded into form. He looks like a player with zero pressure on his shoulders, which is allowing him to simply have fun.
In his last 19 games, Kovy has 11 goals and 21 points. In that time, he has been coming through in the clutch with big goals (four game-winners to be exact). He is currently on an 11-game point streak.
Also, Johan Hedberg has filled in nicely for the injured Martin Brodeur. Hedberg has surrendered just seven goals in his last seven games (all wins), earning second star of the week honors by the NHL last week.
You can also see two other off-season signees, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, finally start to look comfortable.
When you look back at this success over the last month or so, you have to think Lemaire’s return has the biggest thing to do with it. They are back to playing Devils Hockey, the kind of style that has bred success over the last decade-plus. You also have to wonder what role Langenbrunner’s departure has to do with it, too, considering they started this hot stretch around the time he was traded.
Can the Devils do the unthinkable and earn a trip to the postseason? It’s doubtful, but still anybody’s guess at this point.
No matter what the hockey gods have in store for their playoff fate, if they continue to win games and make that nightmarish first half a distant memory, it will definitely be one of the best (if not the best) stories of this NHL season.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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