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Devils’ Playoff Lives Suddenly in Serious Jeopardy as they Begin Western Death March

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As the Devils continue to flounder, they have now just about exhausted the last of their cushion in the standings. With a brutal trip through the West now looming, they are in serious danger of being left on the outside looking in during the next two weeks.

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Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

The Devils lost again last night. It was their 20th loss in their last 32 games (17th of those in regulation). A team once leading the division near the halfway point of the season and whose playoff odds were as high as 90% just a month ago now teeters on the brink of oblivion. The Devils have not spent a single day this season outside of the playoff picture but by next Wednesday, that could be the reality staring them in the face. It’s been a harsh turn for a team that has gone a long way toward re-energizing a dejected fanbase over the course of this season. Now as the team heads into the final month of the season, the standings cushion they’ve squandered over the past two-plus months looms large.

For the Devils, this disjointed tailspin they’ve been in for the past couple months is a tough pill to swallow. And it really has been a tailspin. Many will point to the Devils place in the standings right now and say something to the effect of “Why are people upset? They are way ahead of where we though they would be this season!” That may be true, but expectations change and the Devils are staring down the barrel of a total collapse from where they were about 30 games ago, regardless of whatever expectations were at the start of training camp.

Coming off a win versus Detroit on December 27th, the Devils found their playoff odds according to Sports Club Stats at 95%. After an overtime loss to Buffalo on the 29th, the Devils reached a point in the standings referred to by Tyler Dellow of the Athletic as the “lock line,” or a point in the standings where no team in the lockout era has ever missed the playoffs from. The description, from Dellow:

If a team reaches the lock line, it means that it can say “No team with this many points in this many games played since 2005-06 has missed the playoffs.”

So the slow-ish motion collapse the Devils have been engaged in is pressing them toward unprecedented territory. And aggravatingly, it’s not because the East is a total gauntlet, it’s just the Devils inability to win games that has landed them here. The projected playoff cutoff for the Eastern Conference is a meager 90 points right now. This is a so-so conference filled with okay-ish teams and the Devils are working on missing the playoffs from a position that no one has missed from before in spite of that. Basically this Devils team had to be NHL .500 after December 27th (not a lot to ask) and they’d be cruising into the playoffs. Instead, they’ve gone 12-17-3.

While the Devils currently hold a standings advantage over the teams chasing them, Columbus and Florida (NJD - 76 points, CBJ - 75 points, FLA - 73 points), they now find themselves as perhaps the worst-positioned team of the three heading into the final stretch of the season. A big reason for this is the grueling road trip that they are about to embark on through the West. For those not up to speed, the road trip goes: Nashville, Vegas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Pittsburgh. In addition to it being a long stretch on the road, the teams they are playing have an average points pace of 104. There are no landing spots on this road trip. No Montreals, no Buffalos, no Arizonas. The team with the lowest points percentage of the bunch are the Ducks, who are on pace for a 96-point season, and every one of those teams sits in playoff position right now.

Meanwhile, the Panthers and Blue Jackets have some of the easiest schedules remaining in the league. Per the Devils broadcast last night, the Blue Jackets have fewer playoff teams remaining on their schedule (4) than the Devils have in their next five games. And the Panthers, who continue to hold three games in hand have just seven playoff teams to contend with in their final 17 games. If the Devils want to outrun their two closest competitors to the finish line, they are going to have to earn it.

How do the Devils find themselves here after once being in one of the most enviable midseason positions in the league? There are a number of reasons one could point to but two stand out among them: goaltending and secondary scoring. Cory Schneider, after a great first half, has been something approaching terrible since Christmas (10 straight games of 3+ GA). The goalies mainly tasked with backing him up and filling in during injury, Keith Kinkaid and Eddie Lack, have not performed much better. As it turns out, CJ’s ominous warnings about the condition of the goalie position are beginning to become reality. Simply put, if the Devils are going to survive and make the playoffs, they need the people between the pipes, and Schneider in particular, to be better.

To compound the goaltending issue, the Devils have seen the secondary scoring that was once helping power the team largely dry up. While Taylor Hall has been on fire, many of his supporting cast of forwards, save perhaps Kyle Palmieri, have struggled to consistently contribute. The Devils managed to win only 12 games during Taylor Hall’s insane 26-game scoring streak, which seems like a difficult thing to do. If not for Taylor Hall, who knows how much further things could have spiraled in this second half. The three games he was injured for, which included two shutout losses, are probably a clue. The supporting cast of characters needs to be better, just like the goaltenders. In the same way that the goalies need to stop allowing teams to consistently put three on the board, the skaters have to figure out a way to consistently muster more than two goals.

Perhaps most aggravating of all is that these Devils don’t seem to be playing that poorly on a nightly basis (they often have the upper hand in scoring chances and shots), they just have not been able to consistently finish in the offensive end and have not gotten the big saves they need. The result has been an avalanche of one-goal regulation losses that threaten to bury a team that was once challenging for a division crown.

Whether the Devils are able to correct those things remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that they will have this brutal road trip as a backdrop for trying to figure things out. If they cannot find a way to grind out points over this six-game haul, they could be in serious danger of being left in the rear-view mirror by the time they return to New Jersey (at which point they receive a welcome home gift of playing the Tampa Bay Lightning). If this is the team to break through the misery of the current five-year playoff drought, they will now be forced to battle for it through some of the toughest possible schedule conditions. At the end, maybe they will truly prove to be a special team. If not, we’re now in real danger of another long, long offseason.