5 Factors That Will Make or Break the Devils' Playoff Chances
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The title of this article is overly optimistic, really. The New Jersey Devils' playoff chances are just about broken, and the air of defeat has been circulating around this team for a while now—the past 10 games to be exact. Since Ilya Kovalchuk went down with a shoulder injury in a March 23 game against the Florida Panthers, New Jersey has gone 0-6-4.
The most recent loss came last night in a second straight 2-0 shutout, this time by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Devils have scored more than one goal just once in the past seven contests.
What's unique about this ugly streak is the manner in which the Devils are losing. Obviously, they cannot score goals. However, during these 10 games, New Jersey has been outshot just once. On Monday night, the Devils outshot the Maple Leafs 31 to 12. On Friday night, New Jersey outshot the Senators 33-11, yet they lost 2-0.
This indicates a bit of bad luck is at play. And that's often how hockey works. Inside the Devils' locker room, the cliche "We just aren't getting the bounces" has probably been thrown around very loosely in the past three weeks.
But luck cannot be blamed for a 10-game winless streak. This team simply is not finishing, and that is because they simply do not have a lot of players with finishing ability. There are shots that find the corners and there are shots that hit the goalie in the sternum. Much of the latter has been flying off of New Jersey sticks recently.
Barring a miracle, this team is done. Assuming they miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, plus the fact that they are bound to lose at least a few free agents, plus the uncertain return of Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils may be on the precipice of rebuilding mode.
But I'll keep a miracle in mind, and present the five factors that will determine whether, after the April 27 season finale, the team will be scheduling a practice or a tee time.
Will Remaining Schedule Work for or Against Them?
There are two dates with the Rangers in the final four games.
The Devils need to win out. In regulation. No three-point games. No excuses.
I apologize for the Stephen A. Smith-style punctuation, but the only chance New Jersey has is to completely flip the switch and go 6-0-0 the remainder of the season. Four of the six games are against teams in playoff position, but we have to go deeper than that.
Pittsburgh will have absolutely nothing to play for when they meet the Devils in the second-to-last game of the season. They will almost surely have the Eastern Conference clinched by then, while catching Chicago for the President's Cup and home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Final will most likely be out of reach. Will they rest their stars? It seems wise.
The Penguins have a seven-point lead over the Montreal Canadiens, who the Devils play a week from tonight. Montreal has clinched a playoff spot and may rest players as well. Assuming New Jersey is alive and desperate, will the sense of urgency overcome complacent, playoff-bound teams?
Then you have two of the final four games against the Rangers. New York will certainly not lack motivation, as they will be fighting to protect their playoff fate that doubles as a chance to eliminate the team that beat them in the playoffs last year. Still, if this is the team New Jersey is gunning for, then these two games are a tremendous opportunity. If the Devils win, it must be in regulation.
The remaining two games are against Philadelphia and Florida. If The Devils still consider themselves a playoff-caliber team, then those are two teams they should take care of.
Ilya Kovalchuk's Return
Ilya Kovalchuk's absence has coincided with the 10-game losing streak. Perhaps it is not a coincidence.
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Ilya Kovalchuk has been practicing, but his return date still remains in question. If the winger does come back, the Devils need it to be in the fashion of Gandalf's return in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
In basketball, you often hear about a player who can "create his own shot" on offense. In the world of hockey, Ilya Kovalchuk is the equivalent of that type of player. In fact, he is probably the only Devils player that falls into that category: a guy who can blow by a defenseman one-on-one and rip a shot top shelf.
His sheer talent is what they have lacked over the past 10 games. He is the type of guy that will find the corner and not the goaltender's stomach. For the Devils to make the seemingly impossible happen, they will need their best player, not just for his production but also for the morale of the team.
Kovalchuk is also the best shootout player for New Jersey. He has two of the team's six shootout goals. Three of the 10 straight losses have come via the skills competition (team shootout stats from NHL website).
It should be said that they need a healthy Kovalchuk, not just a big frame on skates. He can't wind up a slap shot with a bad right shoulder. That's probably why New Jersey is not rushing the recovery. He played last postseason with a bad lower back, but the right shoulder is crucial to his arsenal.
Brodeur hasn't been sharp during the losing streak.
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Clearly, Martin Brodeur has not been getting the offensive support he, or any goaltender, needs. That being said, he has not been very sharp during this disastrous stretch.
Brodeur's save percentage for the month of April is .879, hardly the performance the future Hall of Famer is capable of. He allowed two goals on just 11 shots in the loss to Ottawa. As hard as the forwards are working to break a team-wide slump, losses like this are extremely deflating.
Brodeur has appeared in 12 straight games since returning from a back problem that sidelined him for a month. He has to be tired. That many consecutive games is a lot for a goaltender of any age, let alone a guy who turns 41 on May 6. This, though, is the horse Pete DeBoer has to ride. The criticism will only increase if the Devils are mathematically eliminated on a night when backup Johan Hedberg is in net. If Brodeur is willing to play, then DeBoer must write his name in the lineup card.
Both Brodeur's and the Devils' last win came March 23 against the Panthers. That was his 666th career win. Could supernatural powers be at play here? Is Brodeur, the face of the Devils franchise, destined to finish his career with the mark of the beast? It's been brought up in the locker room, tongue-in-cheek at least.
Folklore aside, this could be his last season. He is signed through next year, and this would be a sour end to one of the greatest careers the NHL has ever seen. But who knows if Brodeur even wants to return to stop pucks for this roster, which is unlikely to improve in the offseason.
If they are to surge and somehow steal a playoff spot, Marty has to elevate his level of play.
Clarkson has to find the scoring touch.
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David Clarkson had 10 goals in New Jersey's first 14 games. The Devils were 9-2-3. Since February 15, he has three goals and the team is 6-15-7.
To pull this off, not only will the Devils need a healthy and dynamic Ilya Kovalchuk and a stingy Martin Brodeur, but they are also going to need David Clarkson to find the scoring touch that fueled his hot start. Like seemingly every other New Jersey offensive player, nothing is going right for Clarkson. Maybe it will take a garbage goal to start a torrid finish to the season, the way a baseball player uses a bloop base hit to break out of a batting slump. Something, anything, needs to go Clarkson's way.
Can the Islanders and Rangers Cool Down?
The two New York teams occupy the last two playoff spots in the East.
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If the Islanders and Rangers continue to finish the season strong, it won't matter what the Devils do. On Broadway, the Blueshirts are 6-3-1 in their past 10. Out on the island, John Tavares leads a team that has gone 7-1-2. These two teams are surging as the Devils are drowning.
The Islanders are doing it with a surprisingly good offense and power play, ninth and eighth in the league, respectively. John Tavares is a budding superstar and is getting support from a good cast of role players. They elected not to trade Mark Streit on the April 3 trade deadline and have gotten at least a point in every game since. This young, upstart club seems ready to bring a franchise with a storied history back to relevance, in 2013 and beyond.
Meanwhile, the Rangers made waves on the trade deadline, trading away one of their most talented players. The disgruntled Marian Gaborik was sent packing to Columbus for Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore in an attempt to fortify the team's toughness and grit. They also acquired Ryane Clowe from San Jose, a forward who helps in that category as well. The Rangers are 4-0-2 since the deadline.
The Islanders have 47 points. The Rangers have 46 points and a game at hand. The Devils are stuck at 40 and would have to leapfrog the Sabres and Jets even if the New York teams falter.
Late in 2006, the Devils were teetering on the playoff brink, until they ended the season on an 11-game winning streak. With the division on the line against the Canadiens in the last game of the season, the Devils found themselves down 3-0. They managed to come back and win that game, and they stormed into the playoffs. They would only advance past the first round, but it was a remarkable run to close out the season.
If they squeak in this year, it would be even more incredible. The odds are stacked against them, because not only do they need to turn into a different team overnight, but so do the Islanders and Rangers. The Devils do not control their own destiny—a destiny that was prognosticated by many when Zach Parise left, prognostications that diehards dismissed in favor of Lou Lamoriello's wisdom. But it does not take a sabermetrician to determine that this team is not built to put the puck in the net. And that's what has doomed the New Jersey Devils.