This is it folks. In three days, the New Jersey Devils will be playing their first playoff game in 5 years, and you could argue their first seriously meaningful one in over a decade. The 2018 playoffs were great in that the team got there, but going up against a powerhouse Tampa Bay team in the first round, and with the Devils really only just managing to tread water to make it at the end anyway, no one had any serious expectations that season. And a quick exit from that postseason, while sad, was not unexpected at all.
This season, however, things are different. Before the season started, it’s true, the expectations were nowhere near as lofty as what ended up happening. I mean, who would have predicted that this team was going to become the winningest Devils team ever in a regular season, both by wins and by points? Here at this blog, the majority of us predicted that the team would finish 4th in the Metropolitan Division and eke out a wild card berth. In terms of the standings this year, that would have required points somewhere in the low-to-mid 90s, which seemed a very logical prediction at the time. The most optimistic of us, Nate, had the team finishing third in the division, while a few of us had them missing the playoffs outright. And at that point, those missing playoffs predictions were not outrageous at all. This was an underperforming franchise for a decade, and the roster, while improved, was not massively different from the year prior. A few upgrades for sure, but the same base and a huge question mark at goaltending.
Now, however, everything is different. A phenomenal year, the best regular season ever in this franchise’s history, this was the 14th time that this franchise has earned at least 100 points in a season, and the first time since 2011-12. In terms of regular season success, this team is already in the record books for this franchise. As the season has gone on, expectations rapidly changed. It became pretty evident by early December that this team was playoff bound, the only question was how good they could be, and how far could they go. Would they regress and become a wild card team, or would they continue their upward trajectory and really set themselves up for a deep playoff run? Well, the latter happened obviously, although the deep playoff run is what we have to find out next.
And that brings me to the mindset and expectations part. Because this was such a massive turnaround from last season, there are so many strings pulling expectations for this team in different directions. Let me go through some of them. In terms of the lofty expectations, this is, in terms of regular season success, the best Devils team ever assembled. I know, they haven’t won anything, but I am only talking strictly about regular season success. No other Devils team has been better in the regular season. That creates lofty expectations for a playoff run. Next, they’re the short term favorites, both as set by Vegas, and as the analytics go. At DraftKings Sportsbook, the Devils are at -120 to win the series against New York and are -130 favorites to win game 1. At FanDuel, those numbers are -126 and -128 respectively. MoneyPuck has the Devils at a 58.3% chance to make the second round of the playoffs, 4th best odds in the NHL. Further, they have NJ at a 10.6% chance to make the Stanley Cup Finals, no small percentage. The experts are predicting that this team makes a run, even if they don’t have them as favorites for a championship at the end.
On the other hand, there are strings pulling expectations in the other direction, for a potential quick exit. First, this is a young and raw team. There is very little playoff experience on this roster, and that is starkly contrasted with first round opponent New York, who made a deep run just last year and has a ton of playoff experience up and down the roster. Further, they are the underdogs in basically every playoff matchup when it comes to goaltending, and that is, frankly, unfamiliar territory for any Devils fan that has been around for 20+ years. A hot goalie is worth more than anything else come postseason time, just ask Rangers fans last year, or ask any Devils fan about the 2001 Cup Finals. Good skating will not be able to overcome bad goaltending. Finally, are you really fully over the fact that this franchise was a doormat for a very long time? They just went from being a garbage team continually in rebuilding mode to a pure contender more or less overnight, that’s how quick the transition felt. It feels too quick, like this team needs to go through trials and tribulations first, build up to that Cup run. How can it happen so soon?
As I sit here, and weigh these contrasting yet all valid expectations, my mind and emotions swim. So, I have boiled it down for simplicity, and I am writing this today for anyone who is similarly troubled by expectations pulling them in both directions at once. As fans, we have to think as the team does. One game at a time. Thinking big picture is something fans do, and it should be reserved for us because the players and coaches should be focused simply on the next win. But I think this time around, we might do better simply by thinking like the team. Worrying about whether this season will be a failure with a quick exit, or if just being here is good enough, is going to cause way too much stress, and as fans watching playoff hockey, we have enough stress to deal with. So, one game at a time.
That being said, it becomes significantly harder to do that when the first round opponent is who it is. Losing to them in any playoff series is a massive failure and disappointment regardless of expectations. So truly, they have to win this first round. It is beyond a must. And that directly contradicts what I just said about going game-by-game. So, let’s modify expectations somewhat. Beat New York. Beat them, and move on. Losing to them is a disappointment and failure always, the Devils have to win this series. Beyond that, however, if they do win and move on, just go at it game-by-game. Maybe they make it to the Conference Finals, maybe they don’t. Maybe they get to the Cup Finals. But beyond the first round, if they can make it that far, just go game by game and ignore larger expectations until the offseason hits.
But for the first round? Come on, this team has to win. Enough said.