“Absurd.” Coach Peter DeBoer sums up the recent results.
The New Jersey Devils’ struggle this season, particularly in the past few games, has baffled fans, experts, and themselves. The Eastern Conference Champions started the season off boasting the solid hockey that Newark is familiar with. Even during this inadmissible stretch, they displayed fine hockey with players executing everything the coaching staff asks. The team is constantly out shooting outworking, outplaying, and at times thoroughly dominating their opponents, but is then constantly failing to bury the little puck. Despite superior puck possession and vigorous efforts again and again in each game, they mysteriously find themselves short on goals and have therefore been in a dire situation with time running out to qualify for the playoffs. The New Jersey Devils have six games remaining now, and must win them all in order to take advantage of any blunders by the team currently occupying the eighth and final playoff position in the standings.
There are some obvious culprits in this mess. There is the fruitless power play. Special teams are a huge part of success in the NHL and having converted a few man-advantages would have delivered valuable points in the standings. But the primary complications are injuries to star players in a short season. It was widely noted at the start of the season that this would be an explosive battle and any time missed by the difference-makers would have a major effect on the team. It turns out that the Devils are no different. The two best hockey players on the squad, Martin Broduer and Ilya Kovalchuk, have suffered injuries and missed significant time and the club’s record reflected the void. The team went 3-9 in Marty’s absence and are currently 0-10 without Kovy for a combined 3-19 when missing one of their stars. When both are healthy, the Devils are 12-8.
This predicament has presented itself to the Devils before. When the last lockout finally ended, Jersey’s Team took the ice for the 2005-2006 season without their longtime top point-scorer and leader Patrick Elias due to serious illness. After 39 games, the Devil’s record was 16-23. The New Jersey Devils were struggling. A team is not the same without it’s star players. Then, he finally returned and the season was cut in half. One player gave the entire team a completely different feel. They immediately went on a nine game winning streak with Martin Brodeur getting his first three shutouts of the season in the next five games. The Devils would go 30-13 from there. Amazing how that works.
There is reason for hope as an opportunity for a memorable triumph still exists.
That team occupying the 8th and last playoff spot is none other than the New York rangers. That 2006 season had another unique element to it. With 11 games remaining that season, the New Jersey Devils had 79 points and the rangers had the Atlantic Division all but wrapped up with 90 points. Then the rags stumbled and lost control at the worst possible time, even losing all of their last five games. The Devils, on the other hand, went on an 11 game winning streak and against all odds won that Atlantic Division on the last day of the season. It set the teams up as a third seed versus sixth seed first round playoff match-up, where the Devils swept the rangers.
Now here we are. Our star scorer Ilya Kovalchuk is healing from his injury, preparing to return to again change the entire feel of the team. Six more games left, and two of them are against the rangers. The Devils do need the rangers to drop three of eight points, plus all four against the Devils, and the Devils need to win six games to finish the season streaking at this special time of the year.
Don’t think it can be done? Next time you are in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, look up at the rafters and find the New Jersey Devils 2006 Atlantic Division Champions banner and you’ll realize you don’t have to. It’s already been done.