New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins

Be honest, non-Devils fans: you’re kinda surprised by New Jersey’s success this year. Even last year, you didn’t consider them one of the better teams in the east, right? It’s not that you thought they were actually bad, it’s just that…c’mon: everyone loves on the Penguins. The Flyers seemed poised to win it all. The Rangers seemed to have all the pieces. The Bruins were just a year removed from a Cup and had barely changed. There were a ton of teams you would’ve put on a pedestal before them, but…there they were. In the Stanley Cup Final, pushing what seemed to be an unstoppable Los Angeles Kings team to Game Six. NOT GLAMOROUS ENOUGH, I thought.

Still…it did feel like they overachieved to get there. Then they lost their star player Zach Parise to unrestricted free agency in the summer, a tough go considering few people considered them an offensive juggernaut (15th in goals-per-game last year). Add to that Brodeur being another year older and yeah…I picked them to miss the playoffs this season. Here come the Islanders, etc. etc.

As it stands, the Devils are first in the Eastern Conference, a quarter of the way through the regular season schedule. They’ve lost just a single game in regulation (to Pittsburgh, who they’ve beat twice since), posting an 8-1-3 record. Martin Brodeur is still Martin Brodeur (including having the odd, shall we say, “moment”), and he seems like he’s only getting better (four goals against in his last three games, 2.29 GAA on the year).

David Clarkson went from having the grinder label to being a 30-goal guy, and hasn’t regressed a lick so far this season. Yesterday he pulled ahead of Steven Stamkos is the race for the Rocket Richard by scoring his ninth goal in just 12 games, which can hardly be called a fluke, given that he’s 3rd in the NHL with 51 shots on goal (just one behind Sidney Crosby for second). I’m not implying Clarkson is suddenly going to hang with Stamkos in goals, but he’s definitely exceeded the whole “bit player” picture some people have of him. Plus hey, he does commercials!

Ilya Kovalchuk continues to be more than worth his $6.66M cap hit, averaging four minutes of ice time per game more than the next-closest forward, Alex Semin. Points aren’t quite stacking up at the rate he’d like, but he’s still put up 10 in 12 games, including two shorties (his 41 shots are pretty impressive too). He plays in every situation, he’s big, he’s fast, he can shoot…he’s just a tough guy to play.

Travis Zajac got himself a new contract, and still has room to get better this year. Adam Henrique is back and healthy (and has four goals in seven games). Patrick Elias continues to put up numbers, piling 14 points in 12 games so far. Their d-corps doesn’t blow your mind with any huge names, but it’s a rock solid group – Volchenkov, Tallinder, Zidlicky, Salvador, Larsson, Greene and so on. That group has the Devs fourth in goals-against-per-game, and third in shots-against-per-game, which speaks to the quality of their team defense and coaching.

So yes, I relent: the Devils aren’t going to miss the playoffs this year. Not even close. They’re a tough team to beat every time they play. They’re not just winning their easy games right now, they’re basically winning all their games. They’re going to battle Pittsburgh and New York for the Atlantic Division crown until the bitter end. They’re a good hockey team, and I haven’t given them their due so far this season.

Do I think they’re the toast of the Eastern Conference? I do not. But I can see them being a home ice team in the playoffs. As an Isles fan, it’s annoying to admit, but these Devils are pretty damn good.