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Hope, Three-Point Games, and a Lot of Division Matchups: A Primer for the Devils’ Second Half

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The Devils surprised everyone with a strong first 41 games this season. With elevated expectations and a tough schedule in the second half, can they avoid disappointment in the second 41?

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders
If this guy can duplicate his first half, we’re in decent shape.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Devils wrapped up the first half of their season prior to the bye week, and while they hit the halfway point in a bit of a (ref-aided) skid, they still had a very good first half of the season and far exceeded any expectations one might have had coming into the season. As they headed into the bye week, they sat second in the division behind only the red-hot Capitals, putting up 52 points in 41 games, good for a 104-point pace. The season has had some ups and downs and the first half wasn’t without its hiccups, including some blown leads, a 4-game and a 5-game losing streak, and a number of injuries that hamstrung the roster at times.

In spite of all of that, it would be hard to ask much more from this Devils team than they put forth in the first half. The got great efforts up and down the roster from places both expected and not expected. Taylor Hall looks like a Hart Trophy candidate, Nico Hischier looks every bit the part of the first-overall pick, and surprise contributors like Jesper Bratt and (even more surprising) Brian Gibbons helped propel the Devils at times through the first half. The first half is over now though, and the Devils still have to get through another 41 games if they want to get the playoff monkey off their back. So with that in mind, let’s reset and take stock of where the team is before the second half gets going tomorrow:

The Standings

As mentioned above, the Devils headed into the break in second place in the Metropolitan Division. Now five days later, the team has technically slipped to third, but remain comfortably ahead of the playoff cutoff line for now despite the week off. The current snapshot looks like this:

via NHL.com

So there are a few takeaways from how the standings look to begin the second half for the Devils:

  • The Devils have games in hand on the entire division.
  • They are now five points behind the Caps for first place in the division, which is kind of a lot. Keep in mind, though, that the Caps have been hot and the Devils cold, plus the Devils now have three games in hand.
  • Columbus has edged ahead of New Jersey this past week, but they are ahead by one point and the Devils have four games in hand. Devils remain in second in points percentage.
  • The Hurricanes seem to have ridden out the storm of terrible goaltending and are a very real playoff factor.
  • First team out right now are the Penguins, who are five points back of the Devils, though the Devils have three games in hand on them. By points percentage, Flyers are technically the first team out (and six points back of NJ).
  • The Devils are just six points ahead of last place. The Metro, whose ceiling has fallen in the past month, still has an outrageously high floor, with the lowest points pace being about 88 for both the Penguins and Islanders.

A full assessment of the situation based on the thoughts above keeps New Jersey in pretty comfortable playoff position for now. Things remain compact in this division, but winning just one or two of the games in hand they have on everyone would stretch out their lead(s) back to a margin that feels more comfortable. Plus, given the Devils’ propensity to push games to overtime, they are likely to (annoyingly, for those chasing them) salvage points in a decent amount of their losses. When you’re the one with the cushion, three-point games can be your friend. Still, with all of this jockeying for position happening within the division, things can change in a hurry.

Also, for playoff purposes, the Metro is really the only focus for now. Technically the Atlantic can figure into the wild-card picture if one of their bottom-dwellers gets very hot, but fourth in the Atlantic is currently four points back of last in the Metro, so they are mostly non-factors for the wild card at this point.

The Schedule

Now that we’ve established where the Devils sit in the standings, we can now look forward to the second 41 games of the schedule, where it certainly isn’t easy street for the Devils. The Devils second half is loaded with division games, a fair amount of back-to-backs, and just a pretty tough schedule overall. First let’s take a high-level glance at the schedule overall:

In terms of home and road split, things will be pretty even from now until the end of the season for New Jersey. With the Devils having to make up some of those aforementioned games in hand, though, they will have a fairly compressed schedule the rest of the way with the team only having more than one night off between games six times from now until the end (not including the All-Star Break).

The Devils wont have much in the way of extended homestands and road-trips, but do have one doozy of a road trip in March which will be six games long, include a west-coast swing through California and Vegas, and wrap with a potentially crucial game against Pittsburgh. Mercifully, they will bookend that trip with three- and four-game stretches at home, which will hopefully serve as a counter to that. This road-trip will come at a potentially crucial time of the playoff stretch run and includes some of the West’s top teams. Other than that trip, the Devils won’t have to be too road-weary, though, as they won’t face consecutive road contests until late February.

One thing that may jump out to you is the Devils’ strength-of-schedule for the second half, which is pretty tough. The Devils will face teams with a combined .580 points percentage the rest of the way, which is the equivalent of a 95-point team. The Devils had been pretty fortunate up to this point in terms of schedule strength, facing the league’s easiest overall, according to Hockey-Reference’s schedule strength metric, but that will now come home to roost for them just a little bit. Part of that will be due to the increased number of division games the Devils have to play in a tough Metro, but it’s also because of who they’ve played so far in the other divisions. See below for a breakdown of remaining games against each team and division:

The first thing that will jump out is the number of games left against the Metropolitan, which we can come back to. The bad news outside of that for New Jersey is that the games against the other three divisions are skewed toward the better teams. To wit, the Devils have 10 games remaining against the West, but half of those are against the current top 3 teams in the conference (VGK, WPG, NSH). One can hope that the shine is off a surprising Vegas team a little bit by then, but they show no signs of slowing down right now. Plus, the Devils have wrapped up their games against the Pacific’s three bottom-feeders.

Trudging over to the mess that is the Atlantic, even there it’s not overly easy for New Jersey. The Devils have 11 games remaining versus Atlantic teams but they have a pair left against each of the two Actually Good teams in that bunch and 5 of 11 are against the top-3. These scheduling quirks will be a little bit of a nuisance for the Devils, but I do think the crucial detail of the scheduling will be the games against the Metro.

The big number of division games left acts as a bit of a double-edged sword for New Jersey. If they can take care of business against the division, the tough schedule elsewhere won’t matter all that much. At the same time, if they start to spiral and drop games to the teams chasing them (particularly in regulation) things could get uncomfortable in a hurry. Three of the teams chasing the Devils have all four of their matchups remaining, giving them an opportunity to quickly close the game on New Jersey. Shifting the perspective, though, this will also give the Devils a chance to bury those teams if they can take the majority of the points from those matchups.

As an example, the Devils will play the Flyers four times over the next month. If the Devils take three of four from them, the Flyers would have to otherwise outpace the Devils by 10 points the rest of the way to catch them. Alternatively, they could essentially close the entire gap if they were to do the opposite to New Jersey. If the Devils can even just basically get splits with these teams over the stretch run, though, that could be enough to hold everyone off. With the cushion the Devils have built to this point of the season, they really don’t have to do much more than tread water the rest of the way to sneak into the playoffs. And if they play anything approaching the hockey they did in the first half, they are virtual locks. Still, a tough, division-heavy schedule does present a danger to the Devils place in the standings.

What are the Odds?

To wrap this up, let’s take a look at where the Devils projected playoff chances sit on the eve of the second half. New Jersey has positioned themselves well, but I think most would acknowledge they are far from a lock at this point. So what do some of the various projections/prognosticators say about the team’s chances? Let’s choose a few of the common sources for hockey fans these days.

SportsClubStats: 90.4% chance (weighted); 82.8% chance (50/50 results)

SportsClubStats is an old favorite among people keeping tabs on playoff odds throughout the year and they are feeling pretty good about New Jersey’s chances. It doesn’t really get into projecting teams based on the underlying stats or anything like that, just simulates the season either weighted based on everyone’s current record or with results being essentially random for each game (50/50). It probably tends to be a little generous to teams who you might consider to be “overperforming” but NHL games aren’t all that far from a 50/50 proposition these days anyway. Something to note, even with the Devils sliding the last five games, their odds remained fairly stable in the weighted model, only dropping from 95 to 90%, probably thanks to salvaging a point in three of those games.

MoneyPuck: 84.7% chance

The MoneyPuck model is a bit more complex than the SportsClubStats model, taking into account things like expected goals and shot differentials, but it still seems to like the Devils’ odds of making the postseason at this point. It even gives them the highest odds of winning the Metro, though those are essentially pretty even with the Caps and Blue Jackets at this point. Now 85% isn’t a lock by any means, but it’s nice to see multiple models still liking the Devils chances, including one accounting for their underlying numbers.

HockeyViz: 59% chance

This model is a little bit less bullish on the Devils, giving them an only somewhat better than 50/50 chance to land in the playoffs. Assuming that the playoff odds are calculated using the “Edgar” model as described on the HockeyViz website, this one has a bit of a different approach based partially on the individual players projected to be on the ice for the team. It should be noted that this model would appear to omit or minimize contributions from rookies like Bratt and Butcher that were not accounted for prior to the season. That could explain why it is particularly bearish on the Devils, but regardless, 59% doesn’t seem outlandish given what we know about the team.

Here Goes Nothing

Can the Devils actually break the streak and return to the postseason? That remains to be seen, but there is some reason to be hopeful based on some of the models projecting playoff odds. On the other hand, the Devils face a tough second half schedule and are certainly vulnerable based on the number of division games they have remaining. A losing streak at the wrong time and all of the above odds will plummet in a hurry. The Devils also have to contend with the harbinger of doom that is me being mildly optimistic about their outlook. Can they build on a surprising first half and bring playoff hockey back to the Rock for the first time since June 2012? We embark on the journey to find out tomorrow. Go Devils.