Your team is in a fight for their playoff lives and seemingly every day there is some sort of movement in the standings. One team leapfrogs another. One team inches closer to a berth. One team slips a spot or two behind. How closely would you pay attention if you were a player or coach? Would you look at the out-of-town scoreboard in the arena from your bench? Would you sit on your couch and watch your peers on an off-day? Would you look at the standings and try to become a mathematician in figuring out how many points you need to secure your ticket to the second season?
For the New Jersey Devils players and coaches the responses were different all around, as they battle for one of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots over the league’s final eight days. No one outside of that organization believed that the Devils would be a playoff team after finishing dead last in the conference last season, but here we are as they hold the second Wild Card spot.
New Jersey maintained their three-point lead over the Florida Panthers on Thursday when they lost in overtime to the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Panthers lost in overtime to the Ottawa Senators a few minutes later. In today’s modern age it’s kind of hard for players to not catch a glimpse of the standings if they turn on their televisions, open up their laptops, look at their phones, or even talk to their family.
To Watch or Not To Watch
“It’s hard not to scoreboard watch and look at what other teams are doing but at this time of year is best to just focus on what you’re doing as a team and try to get as many points as you can,” Taylor Hall said. “Maybe we can slip ahead of Philly or Columbus, you just never know. The last thing you want to do is rely on other teams.”
With five games left and New Jersey in the thick of the race with a bunch of players that have never been to the NHL playoffs the Devils bench boss isn’t worried about dissecting the standings, at least not when talking to the media but if you read between the lines, he knows where his team stands. “Not much,” Head Coach John Hynes said when asked how much he studies the East standings. “They change every day and there’s one thing I know and really believe in: you can only focus your energy on so many things. So to scoreboard watch, it really does no good. On a night off you can sit there in front of your tv and be stressed out. It is what it is. For us, it’s about making sure that we’re using our energy in the right way. We understand you have to win to get in, you have to continue to get points. So how do we do that? It’s not scoreboard watching. It’s making sure we’re doing the right things away from the rink. As coaches, it’s preparing the team so that when they come here we have the right information for them. We understand it’s a race but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about it or dwell on it. Then it really does take away from your focus of what you can control.”
So what did Hall do on the day off between home games? “I watched the Florida-Toronto game last night, obviously you’re hoping for Florida to not get any points,” said the team’s MVP candidate. “We’re 6-2-1 in our last nine, we’re trying to take care of our own business.”
Since returning from the six-game road trip the Prudential Center has been loud and the games against Tampa, Carolina, and Pittsburgh have felt like playoff contests with swings of momentum and clutch goals. Like Hall, Blake Coleman has never played in an NHL playoff game and his play has elevated (five goals in his last eight games) as the games have gotten bigger. “It’s exciting, every night the building is electric and the games seem to go down to the wire,” said Coleman, “late goals. Even though we came out on the wrong end (tonight), these are fun games to play in and we’re fortunate to be in the position we’re in to be playing meaningful games.”
Learning on the Job
“I think if you keep enjoying it and keep working the way we are the results are going to follow,” added the rookie winger who is three games away from his 100th career NHL game.
“I commend our players,” Hynes added. “I think they’ve done a very good job of maintaining the right focus and we’ve been prepared to play since we got back from the road trip from Pittsburgh until now. We did a really good job on that road trip against tough teams in tough buildings.”
“It’s great. This race is exciting, it’s competitive, and this is where we grow,” said Hynes following the overtime loss to the Pens. “This is where for us, as a team, as players, as an organization — this is what you want. You have to be able to play your best in these situations and you have to understand how to manage yourself. This is the growth we wanted. This is a situation of understanding – control what you can control. Focus on our own team. Focus on the task and understand how hard and how competitive the games are.”
Every Point Counts
“It’s tough right now,” lamented Coleman after the home loss to Pittsburgh. “It stings to lose that second point, especially with the lead in the third. But every point is important and we’re happy to get one rather than nothing; we’re competitors and we want every point, every night. It stings right now but we’ll get back to work and be ready Saturday.”
So does Coleman look at the standings, check the scores nightly or not? “I’d like to say I don’t look at all,” he replied with a sly grin. “I’m human. You’re always looking, but it doesn’t change anything and our focus remains the same whether those teams win or lose. If we take care of our business, it really doesn’t matter.”
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.