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Devils Now in a Two-Horse Race for the Final Playoff Spot

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With wins for each last night, Philly and Columbus may have put themselves just about out of reach for the teams chasing them. That essentially leaves the Devils locked in a battle with Florida for the final playoff spot in the East. Can they hold off the Panthers over the final few weeks?

Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The second half of the 2017-18 season for the Devils, as Girard wrote yesterday, has been a constant roller-coaster ride for the Devils and their fans. And just like with any roller-coaster, while there have been a lot of ups and downs, the overall trajectory for New Jersey has been undeniably downward for the past three months. Once perched at the top of the Metropolitan Division as late as December 29th, the Devils are now hanging onto the last playoff spot by the tiniest of threads. With nine games remaining, they will be battling for their playoff lives the rest of the way.

With Florida’s loss last night the Devils remain in playoff position by just a single point with the Panthers still possessing a game in hand. Meanwhile, Columbus was the winning half of that Florida loss and Philadelphia took care of business against the playing-out-the-string Rangers, putting the Blue Jackets and Flyers seven and six points ahead of New Jersey, respectively. The Devils have two games in hand on both, but that is a lot of ground to make up and the Devils are running out of calendar to do so. So, barring a tailspin from one of those two, it appears to have shaken out as a two-team race. Between the Devils and the resurgent Panthers, likely only one will be able to claim the East’s final postseason berth. So what are the Devils up against? Let’s break it down.

Schedules

The schedule at this time of year can be crucial. The Devils know this, as they are just about to wrap up a brutal road trip with lots of travel against many of the best teams in the league. They have done reasonably well overall, picking up three wins in the first five games, though the last two have seen the team fall flat. Meanwhile, Florida just closed out a three-game trip of their own, taking care of business against Montreal and Ottawa before getting pasted by Columbus last night. Both teams have some hurdles in their schedules as well as some theoretical landing spots. Full remaining schedules are below.

Devils (9 games remaining)

3/23 @ Pittsburgh

3/24 vs. Tampa Bay

3/27 vs. Carolina

3/29 vs. Pittsburgh

3/31 vs. NY Islanders

4/1 @ Montreal

4/3 vs. NY Rangers

4/5 vs. Toronto

4/7 @ Washington

Panthers (10 games remaining)

3/24 vs. Arizona

3/26 @ NY Islanders

3/28 @ Toronto

3/29 @ Ottawa

3/31 @ Boston

4/2 vs. Carolina

4/3 vs. Nashville

4/5 vs. Boston

4/7 vs. Buffalo

4/8 @ Boston

For New Jersey, the schedule is not what you might consider easy, but it is certainly easier than what they are emerging from. Florida, meanwhile, also has a mixed bag of a schedule that includes a significant road trip and a significant homestand with some easy matchups but also three games against powerhouse Boston in their last six. Some basic numbers on each schedule:

Back to Backs: NJ - 2, FLA - 3

Home/Road Games: NJ - 6/3, FLA - 5/5

Playoff/Non-Playoff Teams: NJ - 5/4, FLA - 5/5

The Devils will have the benefit of six of their final eight games being at home after tonight’s Penguins game, but it will be far from easy with Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Washington still remaining in that stretch. Meanwhile Florida’s fate may ultimately be decided by the Bruins, who loom large at the end of their season. The Devils will be rooting for Boston to remain within striking distance of Tampa for home ice advantage so they still have something to play for heading into that last weekend. Meanwhile, the Devils will also be rooting for the Leafs and Washington to be locked into a playoff spot at the end of the final week (very likely for the Leafs, less so for the Caps).

Form

So how are each of these teams playing heading into this stretch. Well, on the season level, it’s really a tale of two opposite stories. The Devils were flying high at the half way point but have sputtered since and are trying to limp home clinging to that 8th place spot. Florida, on the other hand, appeared dead and buried at the All-Star Break with a 19-22-6 record. They have climbed back into it with an 18-6-1 run since then, a record equivalent to a 121-point pace. Contrast this with the Devils, who were once 22-9-5, but have gone 15-19-3 since then, which is an extremely unfortunate 73-point pace.

The underlying numbers don’t do a lot to take the edge off of that fact, with each team trending in opposite directions on that front. The Devils appeared to be a team starting to really find a grove and an identity in the middle portions of the season by the numbers, even with some ups and downs results-wise mixed in. Of late though, the Devils are a team in a major swoon, with their expected goal and shot differentials face-planting over the past month or so. Rolling averages via Sean Tierney are below:

However, looking at Florida’s trends, they are nearly opposite of of New Jersey’s. They are a team that was below water on shots and chances for much of the season but have started to pick it up significantly in the aggregate over the past couple months (with some ups and downs mixed in). The result is a team that appears to be on the upswing at the same time the Devils appear to be floundering. To survive these final ten games, the Devils will have to hope that they can pick up their play while simultaneously hoping the Panthers will cool off. The Panthers trends, also via Sean Tierney:

Odds

Playoff odds, depending on the source, are something that should be taken with a grain of salt at times, but they are always fascinating (or frustrating) to follow, regardless. New Jersey has seen their odds of making the playoffs as high as 95% some places at their highest moments this season. As they have stumbled their way through the second half, they have seen those odds erode further and further. In the past week, the bottom finally fell out and the Devils dropped below 50% odds in many of those models for the first time pretty much all season. One Twitter user, @mattdonders, has kept track of some of the bigger NHL playoff models and averaged them over the past few months. Their odds as of today are below:

So as of today, if you were guessing whether the Devils will make the playoffs or not, we are essentially at a coin flip now. Everyone besides New Jersey and Florida are more or less locked into their fate at this point, so it comes down to these two teams, in a virtual dead heat, to figure out the East’s last spot. The Devils have the one-point advantage for now, but the Panthers have a game in hand and currently hold the ROW (regulation and overtime win) tiebreaker. Every game from this point out is essentially playoff hockey for these Devils.

Can they outlast Florida over these last couple weeks? All signs point to a definite “maybe.” If they cannot, it will be a heartbreaking end for a team that has brought excitement back to the ice in Newark. Ultimately, the Devils could be forced to watch Florida and Boston play on April 8th with their playoff lives hanging in the balance. If we’re lucky, maybe they can play well enough to avoid that scenario.