When you look at the Atlantic Division standings in the NHL, there is much more than meets the eye.
Right now, what you see is that the Devils and Penguins are tied for the division lead with 97 points apiece. They have the exact same records at 45-26-7. You would think, just by that information that these two teams are evenly matched, and mirror images of each other, correct?
If you believe that, then you couldn't be any more wrong.
This season, the Devils have dominated the Penguins each time they've faced each other. They swept the season series of six games against the defending Stanley Cup Champs. But even though the Devils have dominated the Penguins as much as they have, one would think they'd be running away with the Division.
Once again, you couldn't be any more wrong.
But because the Devils have swept the season series and they're neck-in-neck for the division lead, Jersey's team has a very important head-to-head tiebreaker working in their favor, should the season end with the Devils and Penguins tied in points.
And when you take a look at each team's remaining schedule, it's very possible that the race for the Atlantic Division will come down to the final day of the season, on April 11th.
The Devils hit the road to face Atlanta (34-32-13, 81 points), then Florida (31-35-12, 74 points), before coming home to face the Islanders (33-35-10, 76 points), and they end the season with a big matchup at home against the Sabres, which could very well determine the 2nd or 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference. And although these games against Atlanta, Florida and the Islanders seem like a slam dunk, nothing has been a slam dunk for the Devils lately. They've lost games to mediocre-bad teams, such as Toronto, the Islanders, and Rangers lately. Unless the Devils stop playing down to their opponents, they may run into trouble fighting for the Division in this final week of the season.
The Penguins also have a relatively easy final four games, as they have to play the Islanders twice (home-and-away), a game against Conference-leading Washington, and a game against Atlanta.
But aside from the Devils constantly playing down to opponents, there is another thing working against the Devils in the divisional race here:
Are Jacques Lemaire and the Devils even interested in winning the division?
Lemaire has constantly said that winning the division does not really matter, and that playing well down the stretch does. I guess Lemaire has a point that if you focus on winning games, then the chips will fall where they may.
Another thing working for the Devils is that even if they don't win the division, they'll more than likely end up with the fourth seed in the conference, which gives them home ice in the first round. They would likely end up facing Ottawa, which is a team that I'm sure the Devils would like to avoid facing. But the Devils have had a very favorable home record this season at the Prudential Center, going 25-10-4 at home.
But the Devils really need to go for the Division, and try to get as favorable of an opponent as possible in the first round. The last few years, the Devils have not had much success in the playoffs, as they've failed to get out of the first round the last two years. And when you factor in the Devils' success at home this season, you need to try and get as high of a seed as possible, that way you have home ice in other rounds, if you can get past the first round.
The pressure is really on the Devils this year, mostly from their fanbase. And you really can't blame the Devils fanbase for feeling pessimistic about the playoffs. The fact to the matter is, the Devils have not played very well since the end of January, which is something to be concerned about. When you're a fan of a team that is consistently talented and in the postseason, it begins to get frustrating to not go very deep into the postseason, which has been the case the last few years.
No matter what, even though the Devils are not facing the best of competition in the last week of the season (with the exception of Buffalo), nonetheless it will be an interesting final week. For all we know, next Sunday the Devils will be playing Buffalo, and Pittsburgh will be playing the Islanders, with the division at stake.
Even with both teams virtually guaranteed top four spots in the postseason, this is about as dramatic as it can get.
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