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These Two Games are Thoroughly Crucial

Or totally massive.  Regardless of how much you're into straight-edge bands from the 1980s from Holmdel, NJ.   Silly references aside, the Devils have two games coming up at home that are big games.  And if you need a further reminder that they are big games, check out James Mirtle's recent projections of the team.  87 points will not be enough to get into the post season.

You may not even need to look at that if you have been checking out the Devils' record and everyone else's in the division.  The Devils currently stand at 8-7-2 which isn't so bad considering all of the injuries they have had.  But it is bad.  They have 18 points, which puts them in a virtual tie with the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Flyers are 7-6-4, but they are starting to get hot with 3 wins out of their last 4.  If the Devils are going to improve their fortunes, I believe it's got to happen in the next two days.

The Devils opponents for Thursday and Friday are not that far behind at all. The Florida Panthers come first on Thursday and while they are at the bottom of the Southeast, there are no true doormats in the NHL.  They are 7-9-1 and the Devils are hoping their poor road record (3-6-1) is indictive of how they perform instead of luck.  Nathan Horton (6G, 5A) is starting to come into form as a power forward as he leads the team with points.  And the defenders will have to be careful to not let David Booth run wild, he's got a team-leading 8 goals for a reason.  And I wouldn't sleep on a defense that has Bryan McCabe quietly putting up 3 goals and 3 assists in 7 games.  Most of all, and I suppose the most worrisome, is that their goaltenders are pretty dang good. Tomas Vokoun is in net for the Panthers and he's a talented goalie, proving as such with Nashville and most recently with a 49 save performance against Tampa Bay. But if Peter DeBoer, head coach of the Panthers, wants to test a popular theory among Devils fans, starting Craig Anderson could work well for Florida.  Not only do the Devils tend to struggle with backups, but Anderson has a .940 Sv% and a 3-1-1 record this season. With the Devils' offense switching to be awfully poor to surprisingly productive, who knows what we'll see after the 6-5 shootout win over Washington.

Admittedly, I know that's very stat-heavy and I haven't seen the Panthers play this season. Yet, I know better than to doubt an opponent just because they are near the bottom of the league and were projected to be in the running for the Victor Hedman/John Tavares sweepstakes.

And then there's the Islanders.  At 7-9-2, they are only ONE point behind the Devils (and the Flyers) and are riding a three game winning streak.  That's right, they beat Ottawa twice and Vancouver on Monday.  While it's not a murderer's row of opponents, wins are wins and they bring momentum.  And as Dominik of Lighthouse Hockey points out (and helpfully warns us at the same time), the Islanders are playing some aggressive forechecking hockey.  Dominik calls it overspeed; I think Ludicrious Speed would be better. But seriously, it sounds a lot different from what the Islanders did on opening night.  And I'd have to hope the Devils, especially the defensemen in their own zone with the puck, will be ready to make good decisions a lot quicker.  And with Joey MacDonald doing fairly well in that starting goaltender position, we will definitely see a tougher Isles squad on Friday.

Now that the concerns of the opposition, are out of the way, let's return to the Devils. These two games will not just be important for the Devils to start climbing back up the division.  They will be important in determining who will be the main goaltender for the next few months.  Scott Clemmensen did pretty well in the home-and-home against the Capitals, all things considered.  But Kevin Weekes is too good and experienced to be back as the back-up after a poor performance against the Rangers last Wednesday.   According to Tom Gulitti, Clemmensen could be the starter tomorrow night.  If he does well, that could be the answer right there regardless of what happens on Friday short of a catastrophe or an amazing Weekes performance. 

As far as confidence goes, pulling out a win on Saturday just when Alexander Ovechkin literally equalized at the last possible season has to be huge for their confidence.  Scoring a power play goal has to be huge for the power play's confidence.  Scoring 5 goals in a game has to be huge for the team.  Conceeding plenty of shots and 5 goals last game, well, is not huge.  Still, in this month, the Devils have shown that they have the talent to be defensive enough to bend real far without breaking and that they have the talent to score plenty of goals.

The problem has been having both in the same game (and sometimes either at all in parts of some games).  I repeat, the issue is not a lack of talent; it is in performance. The Devils have not had that since November 1 when they hosted, and rolled, the Thrashers (and it was their last regulation win).   It falls on the coaching staff to a point to motivate both aspects of the team and to make the appropriate adjustments - not adjustments for the sake of having them - in order for the team to reach their potential.   However, it ultimately falls on the players themselves.  They are not artificially intelligent 3D models with someone else controlling how they play.   Each player from Zach Parise right on down to Sheldon Brookbank needs to step up their game in both ends of the rink. And if someone is playing poorly, then they (and the coaches!) need to account for that; but they got to contribute in some way.

With four days off, no new injuries, and these games happening at home, I expect the Devils to get results.  Two wins would help the Devils back up into the conference and send the message that they can compete and win hockey games - even in regulation - without Martin Brodeur.  It would build upon what they did to Washington and it would really help going into a 5 game road trip.   Two losses of any form would be devastating and would make what is an already difficult-by-definition road trip that much harder to get points.   Come on you Devils, it may be November, but these two games are thorougly crucial.