So far, so good for our New Jersey Devils this season; they continued to defy expectations in the month of November by defeating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks not once, but twice and taking 3 out of a possible 4 points in a home and home series against the league best Montreal Canadiens. The team, however continues to struggle against teams that they should be beating if they can hang with some of the best in the NHL; case in point, the Devils should have beaten the Colorado Avalanche this past Tuesday. Not to take anything away from the Avs, but they just haven't been that good this season, and with how the Devils have played against the upper echelon teams of the league, New Jersey should have bested Colorado.
December will be a big test for our Devils, as they currently sit two points out of a wild card spot, but have played one more game (and will have played two more after tonight's game against the Carolina Hurricanes) than the Boston Bruins. While the Devils are 0-1-0 so far this month, they need to start picking up points, as history shows that if you're not in playoff position at Christmas time, you're going to be hard pressed to make it to the dance.
So what do the Devils need to do? Well as I've alluded to in previous articles, anyone in the bottom 6 putting some points on the board would be great. Patrik Elias was expected by many to contribute to the bottom 6, but has already been placed back in the top 6 (as I thought he would be) next to Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Other than that, the team needs to take advantage of the schedule in the following month.
The Devils play the Hurricanes tonight and the Second Rate Rivals tomorrow night; with the way both of those teams have played so far this season, there is absolutely no reason New Jersey should not have 4 more points around 10 PM tomorrow. While the Devils have yet to play the Hurricanes this season, they were one of the few teams predicted to be as bad, if not worse than we were; they've lived up to that expectation a bit better, so the Devils need to capitalize tonight. A strong performance from Keith Kinkaid will be needed. As for the SRR, we creamed them when we played on their ice, and we need to do more of the same on our ice tomorrow.
Next week features three games that I see as winnable; the Florida Panthers are playing about the same level of hockey as we are, and if this team is serious about postseason aspirations, they need to knock off the Panthers the same way they did in the 2012 playoffs. After that, the team heads to Toronto, and while James Reimer has been playing some great hockey lately, he's still James Reimer; if he's not ready to go, the Devils might see rookie Garret Sparks who after pitching a shutout in his NHL debut, got absolutely lit up by the Winnipeg Jets. Mike Babcock might be turning the team around, but I still feel that since the Phil Kessel trade, the Leafs are much weaker. They play Babcock's old team the Detroit Red Wings to conclude the second week of December and again face a team in a similar situation; Detroit and Florida (Toronto as well to a lesser extent) are the teams that we need to be beating; I would say the Devils need to squeeze out at least 5 points from this week.
The third week of December features four games starting with a Sunday evening game in
Long Island Brooklyn against the New York Islanders; this would be a game that I would like the Devils to win, but could see coming as a loss. Every team loses sometime and the Islanders seem to be hitting their stride; I'd take one point out of this game, but knowing that we won't win every game in December I'd be okay with an L here. The Devils visit Buffalo next, and while the Sabres are a good, up and coming team, there are still some pieces they're missing. I expect a win here, same as the last time the two teams played. Florida comes to The Rock again after that and the Devils need to beat them again. The final game of the week I could see going either way as the Devils host the Anaheim Ducks. Safe to say the Ducks have underachieved so far this season, but they still feature quite a few marquee forwards as well as a promising defense. If the Devils escape this week with 5 points out of 8, again I consider it a success.
Christmas week sees New Jersey on the road three times, first stopping in Boston. This is a HUGE game with the teams so close in the standings and unless Boston falls off a cliff in the weeks leading up to this game, this could be a momentum changer; our guys NEED this one, plain and simple. After that the Devils visit Detroit, and as I said above, they need to take two points here. Hopefully the players don't have any holiday hangovers, as they visit Carolina on the 26th and again need to take 2 points here. 5 out of 6 is a must, and Boston must be beaten in regulation.
2015 closes with a home game against Carolina on the 29th and a game in Ottawa the next night. If they Devils lost one to Ottawa here, I don't think I'd be too upset as it's in Ottawa on the second half of a back to back against a fairly good Senators team. As long as they beat Carolina, I'd be optimistic heading into 2016.
If you break down the numbers from above, my expectations of the team would require them to play the same high-level hockey that they played against Chicago and Montreal for the entire month of December. With 28 points on the line, my expectations above would see them earning at least 21 of the 28 possible. That would put them at 47 points with only 38 games played. Am I being unrealistic? Entirely possible, but the team needs to play at a high level to be able to even think about the playoffs.
If the first line, and/or second line go cold, with the way the team is playing, it could be game over for New Jersey's season. The one ray of hope however was the this period against Colorado; John Hynes showed he wasn't afraid to mix and match his players as the game went on, and while it was one of the combinations that has been working (Palmieri/Zajac) that cut the lead in half, Hynes showed he's willing to try new things to spark the team.
Now I'd like to hear your opinion on the Devils upcoming schedule; is December as big of a month as I'm making it out to be? Are you worried about the team's offense coming from 5-6 players on a regular basis? How many points do you think the Devils will take home for the remainder of December, starting with tonight? Is this where the team starts to falter and fall in the standings or is this where they rise up and make a run? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!