Could the New Jersey Devils Take Control of the NHL in December?
It seems that the New Jersey Devils find a way to fall behind in the early standings, but somehow, during their history, they have also always found a way to bounce back to the top.
Usually sometime before the All-Star break, everything starts to click and the Devils make a run for No. 1 in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, New Jersey is playing in what could arguably be the best division in the NHL right now in the Atlantic. With the Flyers flying high and the Penguins and Rangers hot on their trail, it is going to take some decisive victories in order to climb the standings.
New Jersey has put together a little bit of a win streak. Winners of four straight and five of their last six, they will now look ahead to wrapping up 2011 in the right way. Over the next two weeks, New Jersey will have some key matchups they could use to get in position to take over the Atlantic Division as well as the Eastern Conference down the road.
Tuesday, December 19th vs. the New York Rangers
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First up is a showdown against the cross-river rivals in the Prudential Center. For some reason, it never truly feels like home-ice advantage because of all the Rangers fans muddying up the Pru, but they take what they can get.
Believe it or not, this is the first contest of the year between these two teams, so it will be a good marker for both squads to see where they are at this point in the season. With Travis Zajac still easing back into the lineup, New Jersey will rely once again upon the trio of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and rookie Adam Henrique, who have been on fire in November and December.
The Rangers are boasting a team they believe can take them to the Stanley Cup Finals. It could be somewhat of a magical season for the Rangers as they are now HBO stars alongside the Philadelphia Flyers. A trip to the finals coupled with their own HBO series and a game on one of the largest hockey stages in existence would be great publicity for a team that hasn't had much in the 2000s.
Right now, New York is successfully using a goalie rotation the Devils wish they could rely on of Henrik Lundquist and Martin Biron. Biron is 6-1-0 in seven starts and boasts a 1.82 goals against average. It will be interesting to see who they start on Tuesday, but a good rotation in net can be helpful when it comes to the postseason. Lundquist is obviously the starter, but a rested starter in May is much more valuable.
The Devils can take a swipe at their rivals, however, by taking this game and moving to within one point of New York and Pittsburgh for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Friday, December 23rd vs. the Washington Capitals
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Fresh off a coaching change, the Capitals are still one of the toughest teams in the Eastern Conference. Any team with Alexander Ovechkin can tell you that.
The shock and awe of the Caps this year is in net once again. It seems to be a cursed position for Washington come playoff time, but they never seem to have a goalie they can rely upon fully.
Tomas Vokoun was supposed to fill that void completely, but has not been spectacular so far this season. He has a record of 12-8-0 with a 2.81 goals against average, a number Washington would hope to be a little lower at the halfway point of the season.
Washington is 11th right now with 33 points, but could easily make a move before the All-Star break. One way to do that would be a win against the Devils and if New Jersey is looking to move up in the standings, the worst way to do that is by going backwards.
The Devils will need to find a way to keep Ovechkin and Company in check while putting pucks on Vokoun. They would help themselves to take advantage early and often of Washington, who may still be dazed and confused after the firing of their head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Monday, December 26th at the Carolina Hurricanes
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The Hurricanes and Devils have become rivals in a sense due to recent playoff matchups that derailed New Jersey's excellence to some extent.
This season, it doesn't look like Carolina will have much of a say in the postseason as they are dead last in the Eastern Conference with 26 points.
In any case, the Devils need this game. If there is one game on their schedule the next two weeks that needs circling, it is this one. New Jersey has a long history of playing down to competition when they are on a hot streak. It may have been the postseason, but take a look at two seasons ago when the second-seeded Devils lost to the seventh-seeded Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.
If New Jersey gets to this game after winning against the Rangers and Capitals, it will be essential for them to play with an underdog mentality and a chip on their shoulder. The energy on the forecheck has been one of the keys to their success as of late, and it could be due in part to their status as underdogs right now.
They can't let these two points get away from them, no matter how poorly the hated Hurricanes are doing.
Wednesday, December 28th vs. the Buffalo Sabres
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Just a short six-hour drive down I-90, the Buffalo Sabres are a rejuvenated hockey club with a fresh start under new ownership.
Terry Pegula has done Western New York a good service by purchasing the Sabres, as well as their long-time farm club, the Rochester Americans, and reuniting the two proud franchises.
The other thing Pegula did for Western New York is open up his checkbook.
Buffalo played hard in free agency, signing Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff as fast as they could. The two have not exactly panned out to the extraordinary expectations placed on their backs, but then again, not many players usually do live up to expectations in Buffalo. The city is filled with the greatest fans and the worst luck in professional sports.
As it stands right now, Buffalo and New Jersey are side by side looking to climb the standings and a win over an opponent that close can offer valuable leverage in their quest. New Jersey will be at home against the Sabres, but will have to find a way to score on America's goalie, Ryan Miller.
Miller has been turning in some terrible performances this season, however, and has a goals against average of 3.12 overall. For a perennial All-Star, things just don't seem right. The Devils will want to take advantage of home ice and Ryan Miller's fallout to keep things rolling.
New Year's Eve vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins
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Finally, the Devils will wrap up 2011 with a game against the division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins, who are currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference with the Rangers.
The reasoning is similar to the game against the Rangers. They are ahead of the Devils, and a win against Pittsburgh means a two-point switch in the standings.
Right now the Penguins are having a rough run in the media with their superstar forward Sidney Crosby still ailing from concussion symptoms. However, when Crosby was out of the lineup earlier in the season, Pittsburgh still found a way to string together a streak of wins and hold the No. 1 spot.
If Crosby is still out, the Devils need to be wary of their preparation for this contest. We could see a similar situation to the one I described in Carolina, where New Jersey becomes overconfident. At this point in the season, New Jersey could be playing for the Penguins' spot in the standings.
The run would be great if the Devils could take all five games left on their 2011 schedule, but it certainly will not be easy. They have played a couple of good teams in the last six games and come out on top, but these next five will take on new meaning. If everything were perfect and the Devils win their next five games, they will have 47 points and be in a great position to stay on top down the stretch.