The playoff race in the Eastern Conference has appropriately taken a backseat to the dogfight that is just 5 points between fourth and eleventh place in the West, at least in terms of national coverage. With teams flip flopping in and out of playoff spots on a near nightly basis on the ‘other side’ of the continent – the recently competitive play of several teams, whose seasons were seemingly lost months ago, hasn’t garnered quite the amount of attention that it probably should. One team in particular, the New Jersey Devils, are on an unfathomable run that has revived their playoff hopes to a level that is actually conceivable.
It’s still a long shot and we’re not ready to anoint the New Jersey Devils destined for the playoffs until they’re in possession of an actual spot, but the run they’ve been on over the last couple of months can no longer be ignored. Despite a horrific start to the season consistently coming up on the losing end of the scoresheet over the course of the first half of the season, the Devils still sit sixth in the NHL in terms of fewest goals against. Behind the power of strong goaltending and the sudden emergence of an offence, the Devils have gone 20-2-2 in their last 24 games and are now just eight points out of a playoff spot.
It’s something they’re thinking about, but as Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice has emphasized and what Martin Brodeur has reiterated – there’s little room for error if the Devils are going to reach the playoffs.
As they pull closer to a playoff spot, however, things will get more difficult again because now there is really something at stake. If they can keep winning like this, they will have a realistic shot at pulling off this Miracle on Mulberry and reach the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season. Three or four losses might be enough to end that dream, though.
“I don’t think we’ll feel it now, but if we do get a little closer—I think eight points is still a big margin to get in—but if we do get to four or three points, that’s where we’re going to have a really good chance, especially later on when we’re going to have to play the Rangers and Buffalo and everybody,” Brodeur said. “But we’ve got to get to that first.”
The turning point that ignited the Devils’ current run was back-to-back beatings of the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 9th and again on the 14th. Since stepping on the ice to face the Lightning on January 9th, the Devils have outscored opponents by 28 goals. Ilya Kovalchuk has scored 15 of his 24 goals since January 1st while the formerly waived Brian Rolston has registered 20 of his 25 points since the meeting Tampa for the first of two games.
Furthermore to the Devils’ playoff hopes has been their ability to outscore opponents since the All-Star break in comparison to the other teams vying for the 7th and 8th spots in the East. The Devils have outscored opponents by a wider margin (+15) than Buffalo (+9), the New York Rangers (+6), Maple Leafs (-3), Hurricanes (-8), and Thrashers (-15). The Atlanta Thrashers have won just three games since the All-Star Game, but still sit just seven points behind the Buffalo Sabres for eighth. The Devils could leapfrog the Thrashers with a win at home over Ottawa on Tuesday.
With the possibility of Zach Parise returning this season the Devils are inching closer to icing a healthy roster. Martin Brodeur’s return to form couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as the 38-year old has won all four of the games he’s appeared in since returning from injury and he’s posted a very impressive .942 save percentage in those contests.
Like the Maple Leafs the Devils’ playoff prospects were previously little more than joke fodder, now both teams have played their way into a last minute race for the post-season. An otherwise stunning late season turnaround would be all the more unprecedented if the New Jersey Devils can squeak into the playoffs. What’s most intriguing is that they look like a team that belongs there.