The New Jersey Devils are one of the final eight teams standing in the 2022-23 season.
It seems surreal to so much as even think about that sentence, let alone type it out, but it is factually accurate. The Devils, a team that many before this season were hoping would simply play meaningful games down the stretch are now in a position where they’re playing some of the most meaningful games a team can play. After vanquishing the New York Rangers in seven games, the Devils can focus on bigger and better things moving forward, starting with Game 1 tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Given the manner in which the Devils dispatched their archrivals, its tough not to feel giddy about where they stand heading into the Carolina series. And while one doesn’t want to look too far into the future with the task at hand in front of them right now, it has become more apparent with each passing moment that the Devils already have everything they need in order to win a championship this season.
The Devils went from being a group of kids with almost no playoff experience to a grizzled, bring your lunch pail and hard hat, “we are going to outwork you and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it” team that can play playoff-style hockey. That whole notion that you have to lose before you can win in the playoffs? That lasted two games against the Rangers before THIS team figured out what the Rangers were throwing at them, made an adjustment, and skated circles around them. A big part of the reason why the Devils won the series was because they consistently made those little plays that don’t show up in the scoresheet. The Devils won those races to loose pucks. They forechecked and backchecked better than the opposition did. They made the plays that fall under the “they wanted it more” umbrella, showing that that overused cliché can be true sometimes. In simplest terms, the Devils indeed wanted it more, and as a result they continue to play playoff hockey while the Rangers are playing golf.
Of course, its not enough to just outwork the opposition. You need the talent on top of the players buying in. You need Jack Hughes to do Jack Hughes things offensively, but this is also the time of the year where a Hughes backcheck or a hit is what gives the boys a lift. In a perfect world, you’d love for Nico Hischier to score more than zero goals in a seven-game series, but the Devils don’t survive that series without their captain and Selke Trophy finalist shutting down Mika Zibanejad, arguably the Rangers best forward. Your best players need to be your best players, sure, but your leaders need to be leaders as well. It’s tough for the 12th forward to not give it everything he has in the five or six minutes of ice time he gets when Hischier and Hughes are laying it all out there.
To go deep in the playoffs, you need the contributions from unlikely sources. You need Michael McLeod and Jonas Siegenthaler scoring the biggest goals of their professional careers to this point. You need Timo Meier, if he’s not going to find the back of the net despite his best efforts, to at least get under the skin of the opposition like he did with Igor Shesterkin. You need Erik Haula of all people leading the team in scoring, Playoff Palat coming to life at the right time of the year, and a much-maligned Tomas Tatar with a DAGGER goal in Game 7. You need guys like Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves and John Marino to play tough minutes defensively and keep their head above water. You even need to have the depth where you have the option of turning to Yegor Sharangovich (who was good in Game 7) and Miles Wood (who was ok in his 6:30 of ice time) and get those fresh legs in the lineup to grind the opposition into dust. And of course, a 22-year old rookie netminder in Akira Schmid outdueling the reigning Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin is crucial. You need all of those contributions. Not just for one round, but all four rounds.
The Devils have all of that.
They have the elite talent. They have the defensemen who can shut down the high-danger chances the opposition is getting and play with the structure to keep everything to the outside. They have the role players who can contribute in one way or another, whether its a timely goal, hit, or something intangible that isn’t as easy to quantify. They have the right mix of players who have bought in. They have the veteran leadership they need regardless of whether or not a player is wearing a letter. They have the young guys who can skate with the best of them. And perhaps most importantly....as of this writing, they have the goalie.
They have the ability to play a variety of different styles, and if necessary, evolve and adjust to what the opposition is throwing at them. The Devils have one of the best rush-based offenses in the NHL and can beat you that way, but they also have the ability to put on a defensive clinic like they did in Games 3, 4, 5, and 7 and beat you that way too. They’ve shown the ability to shake off adversity to the point where if they drop a game or two in a series, there’s still reason to believe they can bounce back. This isn’t a new trait though, as this is something they’ve consistently done all year. They were incredibly loose going into Game 7 and rightfully so as they knew they were the better team. They have the moxie, the mental makeup, the right frame of mind.....however you want to phrase it. They have it.
They also have the benefit of the tournament bracket being busted wide-open after the first round. The Devils outlasted and survived Igor Shesterkin throwing up a .931 save percentage and 8.8 goals saved above expected in a seven game series against them (keep this in mind the next time you complain about your favorite Devil not scoring). They’re not gonna have to deal with Ilya Sorokin, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, or this year’s presumptive Vezina winner Linus Ullmark the rest of the way. The 65-win and 135-point Boston Bruins, arguably the greatest regular season team in NHL history, are out. So are the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche and three-time Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. If there was ever a time to take advantage of a wide-open field, this is it.
I don’t say that to disrespect or overlook any of the teams still standing. Regular season success doesn’t matter much anymore at this point, and the other teams that are still playing are still here for a reason. They’re all really good hockey teams with their own strengths and weaknesses and nobody should be looking past any of them. Carolina is well-coached, plays structured, has a better overall blueline than the Rangers and is a better skating team than the Rangers, so they’ll present a new wave of challenges for the Devils to overcome. John laid out all of the potential issues Carolina can bring to the table between their elite penalty kill, their great 5v5 play, and their stifling defense. This will not be an easy series to get through despite their injuries on the wings and the downgrade from Shesterkin to Anderson/Raanta in net. The whole theme of this article has been that the Devils have what they need to win, but this is a series they could certainly lose.
The Devils are going to have to continue doing what they’ve done all year and play well. They’re not a perfect team by any means. They were fortunate that their carelessness with penalties didn’t cost them in any of the games they won against the Rangers. They have a tendency to be careless with the puck at times and all of the teams remaining in the playoffs are capable of punishing teams who don’t take care of the puck. What worked in the Rangers series might not necessarily work against the Hurricanes, which might not work against whoever survives the Panthers-Maple Leafs series should the Devils advance again. Injuries can always find a way to derail things, particularly as the Devils go deeper into the postseason and play gets more physical. It still remains to be seen how they deal with teams that really ramp up the physicality, although the Devils have mostly weathered that storm throughout the season to this point. Lastly, it would be unfortunate if the clock struck midnight on Schmid and he’s just ordinary moving forward instead of extraordinary.
New Jersey has shown that they’re capable of beating all of the remaining teams in the playoffs though, and while I literally just wrote that regular season success doesn’t matter a whole lot, its tough not to look at the remaining field, look at how the Devils have played all season, and think if they play their game, they might be the final team standing when its all said and done. They have everything they need in order to do it. It’s a matter of whether or not they do it.
That’s how I view things. Perhaps you view things differently coming off of the Devils first playoff series win since 2012 and with Game 1 looming against a tough Carolina team. Please feel free to leave a comment, and thank you for reading.