Since the 2020 All Star Game, the New Jersey Devils have surprisingly been one of the most successful teams in the NHL. The Devils have went 8-3-3 since the break, which means they have earned 19 points. As of Wednesday night at Natural Stat Trick, only five teams in the entire NHL have earned more points than the Devils since January 26. This has fallen under the radar since it has effectively moved the Devils from being 30th in the NHL to 26th in the league standings as well as eighth to eighth in the division.
It also has been mostly ugly. Again as of Wednesday night at Natural Stat Trick, the Devils have taken fewer than 43% of the shooting attempts and shots in 5-on-5 hockey in that same time period. Their expected goals percentage was just over 43% and their actual goals percentage was still below 50% (the break-even mark) at 47%. The Devils managed to win eight of their last fourteen despite being outscored by three in the most common situation in hockey. The Devils have been much more successful since the end of January, but they have not played better as a team in the process. Their goaltenders certainly have been, which is primarily the result of the amazing performances by MacKenzie Blackwood since January 26. A 95.1% save percentage in all situations for a month will do that.
It is also worth noting whom they beat in this time frame. Their eight wins came against Ottawa by a shootout, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, Columbus by a shootout, San Jose, Washington, and Detroit again. Five of those victorious results came against teams that, like New Jersey, have very little to play for in 2019-20. In fact, those wins helped send those teams beneath the Devils in the standings. As impressive as it was to stun Philly 5-0 and hang and beat Washington straight up, those were exceptions. By the same idea, five of their six non-wins came against teams who are amidst a playoff race of their own. (Montreal is the exception here.) The point is that the Devils did have several favorable match-ups on paper and they proved that they are not really among the worst in the NHL on those given nights. When up against a team with some playoff hopes or expectations of playoffs, the Devils were not as successful.
The Devils are in the middle of a five-game road trip where the first four games are against teams who are mired in the bottom end of the league standings. They enter yesterday’s game with a winning streak and a 7-3-0 record in their last ten. Even if the performances have not been good (and that has been an issue all season long), they have had better results in recent weeks. Enjoy it because it is about to get a lot harder after Leap Day’s game.
Sunday begins the month of March and the Devils’ regular season will have five full weeks left. They will have eighteen games coming up against fifteen different opponents. Here is a list of those games and the scores of the Devils’ previous games against them this season.
For the “Playoffs as of 2/26?” column, I used the odds at Moneypuck. Anyone over 90% now is a “Yes,” as they are a safe bet of making it in. Anyone between 50% and 90% is likely. Anyone between 10% and 50% is unlikely. Anyone less than 10% is a “No,” since they are a very long shot of getting in. To put it another way, out of the Devils’ next eighteen games, only two of them will be against teams with no or next-to-no hope of making the postseason. The game at Anaheim on Sunday is one of them. That is not much of a “gimmie” as the Devils are on the road and will have played the night before. The second one is on April 2 against Buffalo, who has kicked the snot out of the Devils twice this season.
Everyone else will have something to play for at that respective time. Teams like Las Vegas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay will be jockeying for position and competing to win their division or even their conference. Philadelphia may be close to joining Pittsburgh and Washington for the Metropolitan crown, and so they have incentive of their own. Teams like Carolina, Toronto, the Islanders, and Calgary may have good odds but nothing is guaranteed so they need to keep on winning to secure their futures. Teams like Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, and Our Hated Rivals are on the outside of the playoff slots but are not so far out that they would give up at any point. If the race stays tight through March - and it probably will - then expect those teams to play with a point to prove. Do not think for a second that these sixteen opponents do not know that the Devils are 26th in the NHL. Expect that they figure that they need to beat on the weaker teams whenever they get a chance for their own benefit. They will be motivated.
It also helps their motivation that a lot of them have beaten the Devils already. By my count, the Devils have played 28 games against these opponents earlier this season. New Jersey has a combined record of 8-16-4 against them. The Devils have not beaten any of these teams more than once, if at all. They did pull three points out of four against Tampa Bay and the Islanders. I doubt either is going to let that grow if they can help it - especially a bubble team like the Islanders.
Combine that with how the Devils have played the game for the past month or so. You can count on one hand the number of legitimately good performances the Devils have had. It has been primarily on the back of Blackwood playing out of his mind. The harsh reality is that even a slight drop off could wreck havoc on the Devils’ records. Had Blackwood posted a 93% overall save percentage - which is still excellent - from January 26 through February 26 and all else was equal, the Devils would have given up 6 to 7 more goals. Given how tight some of these past results, that could have flipped a couple of wins into losses. That is something to keep in mind as the Devils are about to enter a season-ending stretch where nearly all of their games are against opponents well ahead of them in the standings. Blackwood could still be great and even that may not be enough.
Of course, this is not to say that I think the Devils are going to go 0-18-0 for March through to the end of the season on April 4. I think the Devils will be able to spoil some teams. They did accomplish that against Washington in a performance that was actually respectable. They hung with the top team in the division, who is now in a battle for first in the division. If the Devils can pull that off more often, then they may negatively impact some of the playoff races of their opponents. Likewise, if the Devils’ power play clicks a lot more often, the team’s shooting gets (or stays) hot, and the goalies continue to be excellent without much of a drop off, then that can all happen. It would take something like that for the Devils to keep up their recently winning ways. If not, then I suggest that you prepare for much uglier Devils games in the coming month.
Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on your perspective. I would like the Devils to build something for next season and for whoever is on the roster to do their best. They are paid to do their jobs and do them well. If they have an opportunity to pick up a win, then go for it. That the competition will be much better very soon means the Devils have more opportunities to measure up against better teams. I do not think iron sharpens iron in the NHL. But I do think it is good to recognize where you are with respect to the teams of where you want to be in the (hopefully near) future. As much as the lottery odds will increase with a worse standings position, I do not think a gain in a few percentage points is worth subjecting a young team to more losses where little is learned. That stated, I would not count on the Devils to succeed a lot in the final five weeks of the season.
However, I cannot pretend that all of you see it the way I do. You may see the Devils’ eight wins in their last fourteen as largely meaningless. You may prefer that the Devils have remained around 29th or 30th place in the league standings. You may be an adherent of Sherman Abrams’ ways. If so, then you probably should not sweat the Devils’ recent winning streak or this 8-3-3 run since the All-Star Game break. Provided the opponnents take care of business for their own purposes, the Devils will be falling back in the standings soon enough. Maybe not to the level of Los Angeles, who are ten points behind the Devils as of Wednesday night. But a bottom-five finish is definitely in the cards. Given that the 2020 NHL Draft is thought to have an awesome top ten of prospects, the highest the Devils can finish while guaranteeing at least a top ten selection is 25th. It will not take much for the next five weeks to knock the Devils down a spot or two in the standings. To that end, you may not see the final five weeks of the Devils’ schedule as a potential hell but a potential boon for falling into a better draft position.
This is why it is a potential hell. Not only are the games played on the ice, but your perspective on what the Devils should do now will dictate how you see the final five weeks of the season. We may agree that it will be difficult. The Devils are a bad hockey team being buoyed mostly by Blackwood’s amazing performances in the crease. They are going to play a lot of teams who have something to play for at least as of right now. They are going to play a group of teams who the Devils have not beaten very much earlier this season. We shall see how it goes. All the same, buckle up. The last five weeks of 2019-20 project to be a rough one for Our Favorite Team.
What do you think of the Devils’ upcoming schedule for the last five weeks of the season? Do you think it will be hellish for the Devils? What do you expect the Devils to do? Do you think the Devils will perform better than one may think? Where do you see the Devils finishing in the league standings by the end of the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the last five weeks of the season and what you expect from the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.