John Hynes and his New Jersey Devils are on the league-mandated bye week; but rest assured the coach and his players are keeping an eye on the Eastern Conference standings while they rest up for the season’s final push.
The streaky Devils, who started out 9-3-3 before a 7-15-6 two-month detour, hit the bye week on a 7-3-1 run. As of Thursday, the Devils are three points out of the second wild card in the East, yet only two points from last place in the tight conference.
— NJD Equipment Staff (@NJDSk8Guy) February 7, 2017
So, are the Devils legitimate playoff contenders with 28 games remaining on their schedule?
Let’s take a look.
The Case For
Things are beginning to click for the Devils. Important things. On all fronts.
One of the league’s lowest-scoring teams, New Jersey is finally getting consistent production from several of its top offensive players. Adam Henrique entered the break on a five-game point streak, and with five goals in his last nine games. Kyle Palmieri has three goals in his last four games, and ten in his last 22. Taylor Hall finally broke out with a two-goal effort Saturday in Columbus. Michael Cammalleri has seven assists in his last seven games.
And it’s a great sign that highly skilled rookie Pavel Zacha, the sixth overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, is playing his best hockey. Zacha, who had the game-winning goal and an assist in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames, is 4-3-7 in his last nine contests after producing only two goals and five assists in his first 37 games.
“With Pavel, it all starts with the fact that he’s competing, you see his skating is a factor, he has a lot more puck touches, and he’s a lot harder on the puck,” Hynes said of Zacha’s recent play. “Now you see that he’s using his shot. He gets an opportunity to shoot the puck, he’s doing it. It’s maturity, yes; but he’s just a lot harder player to play against than he was earlier in the year.”
In goal, Cory Schneider has allowed two goals in his last two starts. If the Devils are to go anywhere near the playoffs, Schneider has to more resemble the Vezina Trophy candidate of a year ago than the fragile netminder he’s been most of this season. Perhaps this is the start of a strong finish for Schneider.
The Devils are also getting healthy. Team captain Andy Greene missed 12 games with an arm injury, but has been solid in the three games since his return, which solidifies the Devils’ defense corps. Fellow defenseman John Moore has missed 17 games with a concussion, but might be in the lineup when the team returns to action Sunday against the San Jose Sharks. That leaves Jon Merrill and Beau Bennett, two inconsistent performers, as the only Devil players sidelined.
Throw into the mix that the Devils have won six straight on the road, finally snapped their seven-game winless skid on home ice, and have scored five power play goals in the past three games after residing at the bottom of the league all year with the man advantage, and, yeah, there’s reason to feel optimistic about this team.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 9, 2017
The Case Against
Despite Tuesday’s home-ice win, the Devils have been terrible for the last three months at the Prudential Center. They are only 2-7-2 in their last 11 on home ice, and seven of their next eight games are to be played in Newark. At present, six of those seven opponents are playoff teams.
Quite simply, the Devils fate could be sealed by the end of the month if they do not turn things around and win consistently at home.
Overall, while it’s a good sign that the offense is picking up –14 goals in the last four games — there are still some major issues for the second-lowest scoring team in the conference.
Cammalleri is chipping in with assists, but he has just one goal in his last 30 games. Hall’s two-goal effort snapped a seven-game stretch without a goal. P.A. Parenteau dropped to the fourth line in the midst of a 14-game drought. Travis Zajac has one goal in 11 games. Sergey Kalinin one in 15.
Perhaps most importantly, only one team competing with the Devils for that last playoff berth in the East has played more games than New Jersey, and that is Boston. Many teams have played fewer games than the Devils, most notably the Islanders, who have three games in hand while even in points (56) with New Jersey.
Also, no team in the East has a worse goal differential than the Devils, who are a minus 26 this year.
The Devils are just 6-8-3 this season against Metropolitan Division opponents, though they have won three of their last four within the division.
Beginning Feb. 18, the Devils play 16 of 24 games within the rugged Metro. They will face the Islanders four times, the Blue Jackets and Flyers three times each, the Rangers and Penguins twice each, and the Capitals and Hurricanes once apiece.
How the Devils survive that gauntlet will go a long way in determining whether they can find a way into the 2016-17 post-season.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.