New Jersey sits just two points behind Pittsburgh for first in the Atlantic
There is no way to discount the recent slide Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils have been on recently. They have gone 2-4-1 in the past two weeks with a minus nine goal differential during the downswing. A few injuries—the most recent of which has been the aging back of 40-year-old Martin Brodeur—seem to be affecting the chemistry.
Despite this, New Jersey sits just two points off the Atlantic Division leading Penguins, a club they beat twice in two days before this recent funk. The division crown, and a guaranteed top three seed, is certainly in play.
Home ice advantage doesn't matter as much in the NHL as it might other sports (see the Devils last postseason), but it is big to have a hypothetical game seven in front of the home fans. Plus, you get those cool t-shirts and hats.
Here are a few reasons why you can expect the Devils to pass the Penguins and hold off the rest of their rivals for the Atlantic Division.
David Clarkson celebrating a goal against the Rangers on February 5th
The early schedule has been heavily weighted with division games. Of 19 contests, 10 have been played against Atlantic foes.
The results have been noteworthy.
New Jersey has posted a 7-2-1 record in those games. Most impressive was the home and home sweep of Pittsburgh.
Success within the division is the most tangible evidence that suggests they can finish first.
Four of New Jersey's final six games are division games.
When they eventually enter the picture, they will tangle the division race like a ball of yarn. It will be a similar scenario to the end of last year when the Flyers, Rangers, Penguins and Devils all finished with more than 100 points.
Islanders fans, your time is coming. Just not yet.
Four of New Jersey's final six games will be played against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Rangers. It will be a great opportunity to, like last season, finish strong and build momentum heading into the playoffs. Only this time, they may have a top three seed.
Expect the penalty kill to improve
Last season the Devils set a modern-NHL record for penalty kill percentage, terminating over 89 percent of opponent power plays.
This year, the unit has not seen anything close to that success. They are killing penalties at a disturbingly low 76 percent. The ineptitude of the kill has been especially glaring in bad losses to the Islanders and Penguins.
Despite losing Zach Parise, last year's team is nearly intact. It doesn't seem conceivable that this trend will continue. Coach DeBoer will iron out the wrinkles.
Martin Brodeur looks like he benefited from the extra rest provided by the lockout.
Recent memory will serve against me here. Martin Brodeur's back is having problems and his age doesn't help. Johan Hedberg has also given up nine goals in his last two starts, and he is also pretty old.
Still, I'm going to argue that the goaltending position is an advantage the Devils hold over their division foes.
Henrik Lundqvist gets his props, but in terms of starter and backup, the Devils are deepest at this position.
Brodeur has been placed on IR, but it is not as scary as it sounds. The doctors remain firm that it is not serious.
Hedberg will bounce back as well. I think Sunday's loss had a lot to do with the fact that he didn't mentally prepare to play.
Patrik Elias is among the leaders on this team.
The Devils are a veteran-laden team. In the home stretch of the season during which the division will probably be decided, the intensity level will make it seem like the playoffs have already started.
Bryce Salvador is just the hard-nosed, lunch pale type of guy who embodies what the Devils are about. He was a great choice for captain. Elias and Brodeur have multiple Stanley cups, and the latter has a calming effect on the rest of the team. Even Ilya Kovalchuk looks like a true leader now. Beyond his freakish offensive ability he is killing penalties and logging a ton of tough ice time. The other guys in the locker room haven't forgotten about him playing hurt against the Kings last year.
A good core of leaders will keep this team level headed during that final stretch, and may be the biggest reason the Devils raise another division banner to the rafters.