Earlier in the week, Gerard touched on just how difficult of a schedule the New Jersey Devils have the rest of the way, and how they can possibly scrap together the 10+ wins they will need to probably get into the postseason for the first time in seemingly forever. In the end, before anything else I say in this article, that is most important. Considering the trades that Ray Shero made, it becomes even more imperative that New Jersey finds a way to get into the first round of the playoffs. Not doing so would be a devastating blow to what the team has been building toward this entire year.
However, heading into last night’s game against a quality possession team in Carolina, the Devils had a small cushion on the rest of the division below them, giving them a decent grip on at least the 1st wild card position in the Eastern Conference. That cushion could easily evaporate with another losing streak, but assuming the Devils can at least play .500 hockey, there is a quality chance that the playoffs are happening.
The funny thing is, for most of the season, the Devils have actually been in a divisional playoff spot with a larger cushion in terms of teams between them and a lottery pick. They may have more points between them and missing out on the playoffs now, but being in a wild card spot, there are fewer teams between them and a disappointing end. Plus, in a wild card position, you are forced to play a top seed in either division, meaning you are most likely playing the best teams around, so conventional wisdom would state that a divisional entry into the playoffs would be a better position than a wild card spot.
However, given how the standings could shake themselves out the rest of the way, watching the standings on a nightly basis to see where teams are will be super interesting. What is blatantly clear is that no fan should be rooting for NJ to get the 2nd wild card position. That would mean they would be sent to the Atlantic Division playoff bracket, which is brutal. The top three teams in that division, Tampa, Boston and Toronto, all have more points than every team in the Metro, and have insanely good goal differentials. Ideally, let them cannibalize each other as a bubble team like Columbus or Florida has to be the 4th team in that bracket.
So assuming the Devils can stay within the top 4 in the Metro, they will remain in that bracket, and everything then becomes more interesting. The question then becomes who you want to play in the first round of the playoffs. In my opinion, despite beating them earlier in the week, I would say Pittsburgh is the team to avoid. Despite being 3rd in the Metro behind Philly and Washington heading into last night, they have some of the better numbers, and clearly improved at the deadline with the addition of Derick Brassard. Of the three, they have the highest Corsi For per 60 and still have a Corsi Against per 60 under 50%. That clearly puts them in the “good” category, along with a select few quality teams.
Given that Pittsburgh is most likely not going to pass Washington as the top seed in the division before the season’s end, it brings up a relevant argument. Would it possibly be better to finish in the 1st wild card position to guarantee a date with Washington? The other potential is to hope Pitt falls into the wild card position to play the Caps, and NJ gets Philly. However, that scenario is probably unlikely unless the Pens somehow fall into a losing streak heading into the playoffs.
Between Washington and Philly, it might even be argued that Washington is the team you want to play. The Flyers have been on an absolute tear since the Eagles won the Super Bowl, with only one regulation loss since that championship. While that sort of hot streak shouldn’t continue through March and into April, it could be argued that Philly will be the tougher and stronger team entering the dance. In terms of possession, they have the stronger numbers anyway, with an excellent Corsi Against per 60 well below 50%. Their possession numbers are actually similar to Jersey’s, with both CF/60 and CA/60 below 50%, clearly in the “dull” category. Washington, however, does not have great underlying numbers despite their regular season record. Their CF/60 is considerably below 50%, near 48% actually. But their CA/60 is above 50%, near 52%. That is not the recipe for sustained success, especially in the postseason when they will have to consistently play better competition. They might be the anti-Canes, with poor underlying numbers and a strong shooting percentage.
Currently as it stands, the Devils would indeed be playing Washington in round 1, with the two Pennsylvania teams set to brawl it out in the other half of the Metro bracket. That could be the best-case scenario for NJ. Washington is not an easy team to beat by any means, especially in the first round where they tend to do well, but it could give the Devils their best chance at a path forward. With better underlying numbers, you can’t count NJ out of a first round upset. On the other side, the two PA teams would hopefully beat each other to a pulp. I mean, that is exactly what happened in 2012 when the Devils squeaked by Florida while Philly and Pitt were playing like 6-5 games against each other every night. Then, New Jersey got a weakened Philly team that they were able to take advantage of.
Now, I understand that it is crazy early to be talking playoff scenarios, especially through the lens of a Devils team that has not even made the postseason in a half decade. Just getting in is the most important, and I get that. But while we are looking for those wins to get to 95+ points, it will also be fun to do some scoreboard and standings watching to see how the playoff brackets are shaping up. Just getting in would be excellent, but there are definitely teams you would prefer to play and those you wouldn’t want to once you are in. And given how the landscape looks, I would think that remaining in the 1st wild card position from here on out could lead to the best case scenario assuming Washington ends the season on top of the Metro. But hey, you never know.
What do you think about watching the standings moving forward? Do you find it’s something you enjoy doing, or do you just want to focus on NJ? If you are interested in how the playoff brackets are shaping up, what do you think would be the best case scenario for the Devils heading into mid-April? Do you think playing Washington is ideal, or do you think another scenario is better? Please leave your comments below, and thank you for reading.