The New Jersey Devils have a game on the road against Tampa Bay tonight. After that, they will not play another game until February 6th when they get Colorado in Newark. That will be a full 9 days off to recover and get as healthy as possible. It arguably could not come at a better time for this team, as they also enter this break on life support. Tonight is a huge game. Before last night’s games, the Devils were the first team out of a wild card position, which was a positive trend from where they were a couple of weeks prior. They passed several teams ahead of them in the standings, like Washington, Pittsburgh, and the Isles. But on the other hand, they are now four points behind Detroit and five points behind Toronto, the two teams currently holding wild card positions. That might not seem like a huge gap, but in reality, it kind of is. As of yesterday, MoneyPuck has the Devils with a 22.6% chance to make the playoffs. Those four points loom that large, to the point where the team has maybe a 1-in-4 chance to make up that ground the rest of the way.
The crazy thing too is that given where they are, each game right now has such heightened importance. Take tonight’s game for instance. According to MoneyPuck, if the Devils win in regulation tonight, that percentage chance to make the playoffs jumps to 28.5%, a full 5.9% higher. If they lose in regulation, however, the chance drops to 19.6%, down 3% from what they have now. So depending on this game tonight, their playoff chances can swing almost a full 9% depending on the outcome. And this will likely continue for a little once the break ends. If they go on a winning streak, it could stabilize at higher percentages, and things could look positive. But the other is even more true. If they lose a string of games, the season is over.
And this is why the Devils are currently on life support. They have given up their ability to flounder. They can no longer play mediocre hockey, lose games, and still stay in playoff contention. That has been true most of the season, and they have remained in contention despite losing streaks and some depressing performances. Even now, their chance might only be at 22% or so according to MoneyPuck, but they are only four points out of it with no other teams in between them and a wild card. But now, if they continue to languish and struggle once out of the break, kiss this season goodbye, and kiss goodbye the first year of what should currently be a window of contention. Each of the next several games, tonight and the first few out of the break, are going to have huge playoff implications, games with 8-10% playoff chance swings. That’s just where they are right now. A streak one way or the other is going to decide things. Will this team be playing meaningful games in March? Or will they be vying for a lottery position? We will know sooner rather than later.
How they come out and play tonight will tell us a lot. Do they come out with pep in their step, playing like this is a playoff game? Or do they come out and play like a team that is waiting to get to the break? If it’s the former, they might be able to turn this around. If they look tired and are playing like that, it might be a long last couple of months for the Devils and us fans, especially with such high expectations heading into the season. Let’s hope we see them fired up tonight, even if MoneyPuck only gives the Devils about a 30% chance to win tonight. And win or lose, this break really comes at a great time for this team to get healthy, get some energy back, and start playing like their playoff life is on the line. Because really, it is.