As it has always been in sports and continues to be in the NHL, the most important games a team play in the regular season almost always tend to be those played against teams in the same division (or whatever breakdown there is. Conference, league, whatever). They are the teams directly competing for limited playoff positions, and a win is usually felt doubly, as it is also a loss for a direct competitor. The loss is felt doubly much of course too.
In the NHL, division games are almost always vital. Except for the Central Division, which only has seven teams for a short time more, each division is loaded with eight teams vying for only three playoff positions plus potential wild cards. Any points a team can take away from their division opponents and rivals is a huge win. And of course, equally important, teams play their division opponents more than any other team. The New Jersey Devils play the Western Conference teams only twice each, and Atlantic Division teams only three times each. But they play the other teams in the Metropolitan four times each. More games, and more importance in each game played. For a team to rise to the top, it is near vital that their divisional record is a good one.
As the Devils were a bad team last season and ended at the bottom of the Metro, you can bank on the fact that they had a miserable divisional record last season. Here is how they performed against each team, with home and away records shown against each team and goal differentials (I calculated this using the Devils’ website):
So the home-away split here is pretty significant. At home, the Devils held a record above NHL .500 at 6-5-3, and had an even 0 goal differential. 15 points at home against the Metro in 14 games is competitive. They played the rest of the Metro pretty much to a standstill, and that is really a good sign considering their overall record was well below .500.
Where they fell apart, obviously, was on the road. They managed a measly three wins out of fourteen attempts when playing these teams away from The Rock. And two of those wins came in Pittsburgh, which in and of itself is a crazy stat considering the +7 goal differential against the playoff team in their own building. Their only other road divisional win was across the state in Philadelphia. Other than that, it was all straight losses, and mostly bad ones. They lost to both the Isles and Washington by 6 goals over two games, and the Rags by 5.
Overall, on the positive, they were not held pointless by any team. They failed to win a game against Columbus and the Isles, giving each of those teams the full eight points possible, but did manage to steal one from Columbus and two from New York thanks to overtime and shootout losses. And, of course, they mostly dominated the Pens which is definitely the anomaly here, but a positive one at that. And again, their home record was a decent one. They swept Carolina at home and had positive goal differentials against the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Washington at The Rock. That is the encouraging bit about this information.
However, of course, the negatives outweigh the positives, and that is what you would expect from this past season honestly, where the team finished last in the division. If the Devils are to improve their record next year and really compete for a playoff position against these teams, they will need to improve their divisional record, especially on the road. They need to be able to go into their buildings and scrape together some points, especially if it can be done in regulation, denying the other teams any points. Some of those four point wins on the road will be vital to suppress their point totals while raising that of NJ.
When looking at how the other teams in the division handled their offseasons from John’s post last weekend, it will be tough to find those wins. This division is going to continue to be a tight one this season. The teams at the bottom got better and the teams at the top still seem good. Yes, the Isles might not have that miracle run in them, Philadelphia really did not do much, and Pitt made some head scratching moves, but do you really think any of them will be easy matchups for New Jersey come this season? I certainly don’t. You have to hope that they will improve on their 9-16-3 divisional record from last season simply because they have improved as a team. The additions that have come to Newark are good ones, and have made this team a better one overall. But playing in the Metro will not be easy next season. However, if NJ really wants to make a jump in the division and show Taylor Hall and the rest of the league that they are a competitive team once again, they will have to find some wins against these teams that they did not find last season.
Do you think the Devils can improve on their divisional record from last season? How well do you think NJ can do in this division? Who might they be better equipped to play, and who might they struggle against? How important do you think these divisional games will be next season? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.