New Jersey Devils: 4 Reasons They Are a Legitimate Stanley Cup Contender
The New Jersey Devils seem to be headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Devils have not yet clinched a spot, but with today's win established an eight-point lead over the bubble teams with just five games remaining. Elimination is possible, but not likely.
But with that said, where do the Devils stand? They are only a six-seed, and there are a lot of teams out there that look a lot scarier.
However, the Devils do have their strengths, and I believe the Devils have a legitimate shot to win the Cup, no matter how small it may be.
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Playoff experience isn't necessary for a Cup-winning team, but it certainly helps.
Seasoned veterans can help keep younger or inexperienced players calm and cool, and that is something the Devils have their fair share of.
The Devils don't have players that have won Stanley Cups recently, but the remnants of their past successes more than make up for that.
Patrik Elias still sports two Stanley Cup rings, while Martin Brodeur owns three. Petr Sykora also has two, one of which came with the Penguins in 2009, the other as a Devil in 2000.
Again, experience isn't enough to win a Cup for a team, but it may be the little bit that keeps an already-talented team going deep. With Brodeur and Elias already clearly two of the leaders of the team, players will already be looking to them for guidance and security.
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The Devils are far from the most exceptional teams in the league, but they do have their areas of strength.
The Devils' penalty-kill unit is the best in the league. The 89.6 percent kill-rate is tops, as are the 14 shorthanded goals.
Though not airtight, the Devils' defense is also above-average, allowing a ninth-best 2.56 goals per game.
Possibly most important, the Devils don't need to be home to win.
At 22-15-2, the Devils are the fourth-best team in the league on the road. Given the six-seed, they will rarely (if ever) see home-ice advantage, so being able to pick up wins elsewhere will be key.
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It's impossible to overstate the importance of matchups come playoff time, and the Devils seem to be in the best position in that regard.
I'll choose my words carefully here, as I do not mean to offend any Florida Panthers fans. However, I do believe the Panthers are not a serious contender.
They've had a remarkable season, and this isn't taking away from that. They've exceeded all expectations, and a number of players—Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Tomas Fleischmann, to name a few—have established (or re-established) themselves as dominant players.
That being said, the roster doesn't go very far past the three skaters mentioned above, though the Panthers have Stephen Weiss, Jason Garrison and Jose Theodore. They have talent, but not quite enough to compete with the best in the league.
As long as the Panthers keep their division lead, they're guaranteed the three-spot, and the Devils seem to be building a cushion on either side in the sixth spot. Should they meet in the first round, the Panthers could serve as a good, competitive, but beatable team.
With the Devils a lower-seeded team, the Cats seem like the best matchup to give the Devils a shot at advancing.
Know the Competition
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The Devils play in the Atlantic Division, arguably the best division in hockey*.
Though they're sixth in the conference (and in fact fifth in points) and fourth in the division, behind the Penguins, Flyers and conference-leading Rangers.
That means that of the 82 games they've played this season, 18 have been against top-three teams in the conference (top-six in the league).
Still, they have managed to amass the points.
The team split each of the season series with the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins. Sure, any of those teams might be favored in a series against the Devils, and probably rightfully so. But the Devils have proven this year that they can play even with the best the East has to offer.
Of course, there's a notable exception. The Devils were swept this season by the Bruins, the conference's fourth-best team. A matchup against them would be unfortunate, but could be avoided in some scenarios.
*No doubt the Central division is superb, but Atlantic teams average more points per team (93.2), goals per team (219.8) and a larger goal differential (+17.6) than Central teams (89.2 points, 211.4 goals for and +11, respectively).
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When all is said and done, the hopes of a playoff team ride on whether or not its players can perform under pressure. Some players have shown themselves to perform exceptionally well in such circumstances.
The Devils have a number of those players.
It's hard to measure how clutch someone is, but there are a few statistics you can look at. The Devils have three of the top 20 active leaders in game-winning goals: Elias with 78, Sykora 57 and Ilya Kovalchuk 55.
Until earlier this season, Elias had been tied as the NHL's all-time leader in overtime goals, with 16. Jaromir Jagr broke the the tie, passing Elias, Sergei Fedorov and Mats Sundin. Kovalchuk is fifth all-time with 13.
Though there are no shootouts in the playoffs (unfortunately for the Devils), those stats can still reflect a player's ability to perform under pressure.
Following tonight's miss, he is 11-of-14 on the season. Both his 11 shootout goals and seven game-deciding goals are single-season records.
There's no exact science behind playoff success, but the fact that multiple extremely talented scorers have shown they can perform in high-pressure situations has to count for something.
I'm not saying you should place a large wager on the Devils. I'm not saying they'll win at all. But each year has some teams that seem like they can be written off immediately, and the Devils should not be considered one of those teams.
*Any excuse to watch that video.
All stats obtained via Hockey-Reference, NHL.com and the Devils' team website.