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FanFirst Friday: Under Pressure Edition

The Devils start the playoffs this upcoming week and they may have an edge over every other Eastern Conference contender. The weight of expectations.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at New Jersey Devils
Footloose and fancy-free this playoffs? Yeah, that is likely the sentiment.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I’m back to California after my East Coast trip last week and while I love my home, I love California, I’ve got to admit—I miss Devils games in person already. It’s hard not to since whenever I’ve been in the building in 2022-2023, the team went a very healthy 6-1. The one loss being the Toronto game in November when, let’s face it, the Devils should’ve walked away with another W.

Possibly the most fun I had at a game this year was the Devils game against Columbus. My wife went to her first game at the Rock and got to belt out, using Sesame Street’s Count voice here, “8-woos, ahahahaha.” She also got to vibe to the Gaslight Anthem’s Howl eight times and chant “You Suck.” Her assessment of the Rock? She told me it was an incredible atmosphere and one of the best she’s ever been in for a hockey game (I used to go to a lot more Devils games with her before we had two kids but then the kids assumed that role). I mean it’s hard not to have been a great atmosphere with your team scoring like it was an NHL23 game and you had a stacked roster against...well, whatever it was that Columbus put out there. Interestingly enough, enjoy the 15-2 combined wins at home against the Blue Jackets this season because if they somehow pull off winning the Bedard sweepstakes, we could very well be talking about them making a Devils-like turnaround next year.

Regardless, my live hockey for this year is over unless the Kings and Devils somehow make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. I saw the Devils beat the Oilers, lose to the Maple Leafs, both in November, both at home. Then I saw the Devils beat the Ducks and Kings out here in Southern California. The Ducks game was a trunk slam, but the Kings game was closer than we think. Still, Mackenzie Blackwood had one of his better games of the season and Jonathan Quick did not. That brought my live record to 3-1.

For my son’s birthday, my wife and I treated him to a trip to Colorado to see his favorite team, the Avalanche, take on my favorite team, the Devils. That was a fun one where Vitek Vanecek didn’t have a very good game but neither did the Avs minor league goalie. Devils wound up winning 7-5 and my son didn’t talk to me for several hours afterwards (his second favorite team is the Devils but definitely no doubt who he was rooting for hard that night). That made me 4-1.

And that brought me to last week and the pounding of the Penguins that helped hasten their demise and send Sidney Crosby to the golf course early for the first time since my now 18-year-old daughter was still in diapers. And obviously the rout of the Blue Jackets, who clearly didn’t come to New Jersey to win hockey games. 6-1.

And now that my attending live games recap is over (sorry for the very long delayed lede), I want to discuss something about the playoffs next week. It’s an idea that came to me when listening to SiriusXM this week and The Point featuring Boomer and Jake. This is probably my favorite hockey show and I try to go out of my way to listen whenever possible, even if it’s the replay. They have a heavy focus on fantasy hockey, which I don’t even play, but they have some of the most reasoned, well thought out discussions on hockey anywhere. They don’t take fans calls or anything like that (though they have guests on occasion) so it’s mostly just Boomer and Jake talking. Boomer tends to come up with REALLY good random stats that no one else is talking about and Jake often supports him with thoughtful comments.

This Wednesday they were discussing what players to pick in playoff pools for fantasy hockey and Boomer listed Devils superstar Jack Hughes at number seven. After Jake talked about how he believes Rangers should be highly sought after (he does love him some Rangers but I forgive him for that), he threw something out there that got my wheels turning.

I won’t quote it verbatim because I can’t remember the exact quote, but he said something like, New Jersey could be a great pick to go far because they literally have zero pressure on them heading into the playoffs. No one expected them to be here and they’re now playing with house money. I could see them playing loose and free and having an advantage in this area over all the other major five East contenders.

Now, as fans, we tend to try and find reasons why our team will excel if we can. To put it in Ted Lasso terms, we all try and find reasons to “Believe”. But I do think this is a legitimate one.

Pressure is largely a mind-made construct. In other words, the only pressure you ever feel is the one that you place upon yourself. That being said, I want to look at the other teams in the East and see what pressures they face. And see if Jake was right.

Boston Bruins: On another show I was listening to earlier this week, I think it might’ve been 32 thoughts, they were saying that the Bruins are probably like 30 percent favorites over the field to win the Stanley Cup. It’s what happens when your team goes all historic and wins more games than any team in NHL history. Most people will likely say that they expect the Bruins to win it all. I don’t have to remind you that the President’s Trophy winner for the best regular season in the NHL rarely wins the Stanley Cup. And we don’t have to go very far back to see a historic team in the Tampa Bay Lightning bowing out in the first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a stunning sweep. Thing is, the Bruins should have a lot of pressure on them because Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci could retire after this year and their prospect cupboard is largely bare. PLUS they brought in quite a few unrestricted free agents to take a swing at it all. There’s no doubt that anything short of raising the Stanley Cup this Spring would be considered an immense failure of a season, despite all the regular season records. Now THAT’S pressure.

Carolina Hurricanes: This team has danced a contender’s dance for quite some time now. A constant playoff team that should challenge for a Cup, but hasn’t quite been able to even get to a final. Heck, they’ve only gotten to one Eastern Conference Final and that was in 2018-2019. The rest of the time, they’ve bowed out long before many thought they should’ve. Now, the pressure might be relieved on them a bit this year as not many expect them to do much these playoffs because of injuries to Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov. But the team can pressure other teams offensively better than every team in the league and defend with anyone. The question will be if they will get any offense when they create the many chances from the forecheck. And that itself can be immense pressure. Players in a room do hear the outside noise, as hard as they try to avoid it, and the noise around this team is about who will score. Maybe the defensemen score a bunch and relieve that pressure on the forwards. They have the personnel for it. Or maybe Sebastian Aho goes supernova in the playoffs and throws all of Raleigh on his back and carries it through the postseason? Or Seth Jarvis shows that the Canes were smart to not have dealt him in a potential Timo Meier deal? Still, there is pressure on this team that has been to the postseason so many times lately with little success to show for it.

Toronto Maple Leafs: George W. Bush asks if you remember him? Because if you do, you might remember the Leafs last playoff series win because Bush was president then, three presidential administrations ago. NOT winning a Stanley Cup, just winning a playoff series. If we’re talking Stanley Cup, well, that happened four years BEFORE I was born and I’m 51 years old, so that should give you some perspective. No team in the playoffs has greater pressure on them this year than the Leafs. Here’s the thing with the Leafs though. All that pressure is squarely on winning the first round matchup with the Lightning. I somehow feel like if they can manage to get through that beast of a matchup, perhaps the pressure of it all will magically disappear and then the rest of the NHL would have to deal with a team running footloose and pressure-free. But hoo boy, that first round matchup just looms like climbing Mount Everest. With a piano on your back. With no guide. And one foot tied to a stake at the bottom.

Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are a tough one. They’ve stumbled and bumbled to the end of the regular season but they’ve also done that before. Last season they stumbled into the playoffs and then came only two wins short of winning a third consecutive Cup. The pressure here is that the players inside the locker room know how many talented players they’ve lost off that roster. They don’t see them when they lace them up before playoff games any more (think of all the names that have moved on). That being said, the roster still includes Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and the ridiculous stud in goal, Andrei Vasilevskiy. So it’s possible that, of the top contenders, the Lightning might have the least pressure outside of the Devils. Even if they lose to the Leafs in the first round, they still have two Cup rings to keep them warm at night. Oh, and a near third one last year. Still, people will start writing the obituary on the Lightning dynasty if they lose early on, which does carry some pressure with it.

New York Rangers: There might not be a team with more pressure on it than the Rangers. Patrick Kane was begging to come to NY because he thought he could win another Cup there. Vladimir Tarasenko wanted to go to the Rangers for the same reason. Their fans assume that this is the year they take that giant step forward and at least go to the Stanley Cup Finals, if not win it all. When New York City expects success and you disappoint, it becomes a magnifying glass in the sunlight and you are the ants. Igor Shesterkin seems to have righted his ship back to his play from last season and that could be the difference between this team bowing out early and going on an extended run. Remember a lot of folks tabbed this team to win the Cup this year before the season started and when you are a favorite, there’s intrinsic pressure that comes from that. Last season should’ve equipped them well to deal with the pressure this year as they know what to expect when the puck is dropped on the postseason. Whether that helps or not, we shall see.

New Jersey Devils: This is a perfect segue for the Devils talk because if the Rangers were a preseason darling, the Devils were the preseason punching bag...hell they were an in-season punching bag despite what they were doing on the ice.

No one believed in the Devils then (I honestly thought they would top out around 89 points and just miss the playoffs so I guess I didn’t believe in them, either). No one believed in them as the season went on. And frankly, not a lot of people believe in them now. The predictions haven’t come in for the first round, but mark my words right now (I’m writing this Thursday afternoon prior to the Devils game), most of the predictions from the experts will have the Devils exiting in the first round using justifications like, “Nice season, great improvement but they aren’t ready for primetime yet.” And they might not be wrong. But here’s the thing. No one expects success and if no one expects success, that means there’s no pressure. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

So perhaps the Devils fold quickly in the first round. Maybe they get swept and don’t look great in any of the games. After getting over being really angry that the team didn’t show up for the playoffs, I think most fans will reflect on 2022-2023 as the perfect stepping stone towards greatness. But maybe those low expectations allow the Devils to play free, loose, fast and energetic. The way they’ve won all year. And that’s why they suddenly surprise and make a deep run. Hell, as fans, we cling to anything for hope. And I do believe that the pressure you feel is the one you manufacture. But you manufacture it from outside sources like media, friends, even discussions with teammates in locker rooms. There’s something liberating to this when you’re a hockey team:

So gear up Devils fans and, as the team’s t-shirt once said (probably prematurely):

Next time I talk to you in a week, the Devils will have played playoff hockey for the first time in five seasons. I can’t wait.