The New Jersey Devils, who have not missed the playoffs since the 1995-96 season, are in danger of not making the postseason this year. This is a surprise to the NHL and a disappointment to the team's fans, who have seen early playoff exits in the last three years.
The Devils struggled out of the gate and fired their coach John MacLean in December when they had a 9-22-2 record and were last in the Eastern Conference. They lost Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise, two members of their core, to injuries and Ilya Kovalchuk was not producing at the level he was expected to after signing a mega-deal over the summer.
However, things have been getting better for New Jersey. They are 16-1-2 in their last 19 games, Kovalchuk is stepping up and backup goalie Johan Hedberg has been reliable.
So can the Devils make the playoffs?
Let's look at how they are faring and see what they can do in the last quarter of the season.
Regardless of my prediction, feel free to let me know what you think New Jersey's chances are in the comments section.
Alison Myers is an NHL and Pittsburgh Penguins Featured Columnist. You may reach her at Alison.Myers@mail.com or follow her on Twitter.
Current Record: 26-30-4 (56 points, 13th in Eastern Conference)
Last 10 games: 9-0-1
Current streak: The Devils are on an eight-game winning streak.
Last game: 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.
The biggest story of the Devils' recent good fortunes is Ilya Kovalchuk's production.
Kovalchuk is currently on an 11-game point streak and has seven goals and 13 points over that time. The streak includes a pair of two-point games—February 6 against the Montreal Canadiens and February 11 against the San Jose Sharks.
He now has 42 points in 50 games.
Rookie Nick Palmieri was the savior of last night's game. He scored the lone goal, which was the first power play goal and first game-winning goal of his NHL career. He has nine points in 21 games.
Patrik Elias, New Jersey's leading scorer with 46 points, has 11 multi-point games this season, the most of anyone on the team. He had 12 points in 12 games in January and had a seven-game point streak from January 17 to February 3 where he scored eight points. On Saturday, he had three assists and scored his 800th career point against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Over the last 19 games, the Devils have scored nearly three goals per game. However, their goals per game average of 2.12 is ranked last in the league.
Head coach Jacques Lemaire's defense-first strategy may be boring to most hockey fans, but it somewhat pays off for the Devils. They surrender 2.67 goals per game, which is ranked 12th in the league. During their current run, however, they have only allowed 31 goals to opponents, roughly 1.63 goals against per game.
They surrender just under 27 shots per game with 26.9 and are ranked first in the league in that category.
New Jersey isn't perfect on defense, though. Their team plus/minus rating of minus-26 is ranked 28th in the NHL. They are also last in the league in blocked shots with 649.
Palmieri leads the Devils with a plus-nine rating and two players have plus/minus ratings of more than minus-20 (Kovalchuk and David Clarkson).
Andy Greene leads Devils defensemen with 19 points.
Martin Brodeur has been ailed by injuries this season and as a result, has not been the dominating goaltender fans are used to seeing.
However, before he went down with his latest injury (knee) against the Canadiens back on February 6, he was starting to pull it together. He had won his last three starts with one shutout and had allowed just three goals. He posted a .954 save percentage.
He currently has a record of 13-19-2 in 38 games, has a .898 save percentage and 2.74 GAA. His four shutouts are ranked ninth in the NHL.
With Brodeur trying to get healthy, Johan Hedberg has been stepping up to the plate. A veteran of several NHL teams, Hedberg knows what it takes to provide solid goaltending when needed.
Hedberg has won his last seven starts and posted two shutouts in that streak. He has posted a remarkable .962 save percentage and a 1.17 GAA. His overall record currently stands at 13-10-2 in 30 games, has a .912 save percentage and a 2.35 GAA, which is ranked 10th in the league.
The Devils do not have a power play to write home about. Their 14 percent conversion rate is ranked 29th in the NHL and they have just 11 goals on the man advantage. Elias leads the team with seven of those goals.
However, their penalty kill is much better. They kill off 83.9 percent of their man advantages, which is ranked seventh in the league.
Despite the better success rate on the penalty kill, they only have two shorthanded goals. Henrik Tallinder and Travis Zajac have scored those.
If the Devils plan on making the playoffs, they will have to fix their special teams.
When former Devils player John MacLean got fired from the bench boss job in December, Jacques Lemaire came out of retirement to take the position once again.
Lemaire is no stranger to coaching in New Jersey. He won the 1995 Stanley Cup with the team and also took them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994. On February 10, he earned his 600th win as a head coach when the Devils defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 2-1.
However, Lemaire has missed the playoffs six times in his coaching career. This includes one failure with the Devils when they did not make the postseason in 1996 after winning the Cup the previous year.
Lemaire is assisted by former NHL player Adam Oates, who is in his second coaching job after previously serving as assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also has Larry Robinson, who has been in and out of the Devils organization but has been around for all three of the team's Cup victories (1995, 2000 and 2003).
Lemaire and Robinson are very experienced coaches and know what it takes to win.
The Devils will conclude their February schedule with a trip to Florida, where they will take on the Bolts and the Florida Panthers.
Tampa Bay is second in the conference with a record of 35-18-7 for a total of 77 points. They snapped a three-game losing streak on Wednesday with an 8-3 blowout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.
Florida is 2-4 in their last five games and 3-6-2 in their last 10. They fell to the Ottawa Senators by a score of 5-1 last night. However, they sit in 12th place in the conference with a record of 25-28-7 for 57 points, one point ahead of New Jersey.
In March, New Jersey has five games against playoff contenders. Their schedule is highlighted with two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and match-ups against Tampa Bay and the Washington Capitals.
They also play non-playoff teams nine times. This includes two meetings with the Atlanta Thrashers and three games against the New York Islanders.
The Devils conclude in April with five out of their last six games against teams in playoff contention.
Although the Devils are divisional rivals of my favorite team, I give them credit for what they have accomplished in their last 19 games. I can never resist a good underdog story and I would applaud them if they managed to come back from a poor start that led them to the basement of the Eastern Conference.
This is certainly not the first time an NHL team has made such a run to get into the playoffs. I think of the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, who bounced back from being 10th in the conference in February to post an 18-3-4 record and not only make the playoffs, but win the Cup.
However, I just do not think the Devils will make the playoffs. They have a poor power play and their defense, which is usually sharp, is questionable this year.
Furthermore, I believe Brodeur cannot handle the playoffs this year. I realize he has accomplished a lot in the postseason and I respect that, but with the injury problems he has had, it will be difficult to recover and then throw himself to any kind of last-minute push for the playoffs.
He is 38 years old and although it hurts to say it, most NHL players start slowing down or considering retirement at that age.
Finally, the Devils do not have the offensive power of other contenders. They have just three players who have at least 30 points this year. It may be true that defense wins championships, but you still have to score goals to win games. For most of the season, New Jersey hasn't done that.
Even though I don't think the Devils can pull this off, I would enjoy being wrong for once.
If you think I'm wrong, go ahead and make your case for New Jersey making the playoffs. I'm all ears.