Last season, four teams from the Atlantic division made the playoffs. Of those four, the New Jersey Devils, seeded sixth, ousted two of the higher-ranked teams — the fifth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and the top-seeded New York Rangers.
So, entering the 2013 lockout-shortened season, should the Devils be expected to finish above the Rangers, Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins?
In all likeliness, the Atlantic division will feature some of the top teams in the Eastern Conference again this season. The Rangers added star forward Rick Nash, the Flyers and Penguins didn’t lose too much talent, retaining the same dangerous status from last season.
So, did the Devils, who didn’t do much except lose Zach Parise to free agency, do enough to be considered one of the best teams in the talented division? The honest answer: probably not, but that’s perfectly fine in New Jersey.
Year-after-year, the Devils lay low in the Eastern Conference, much like they did last year, finishing fourth in the division at the end of the regular season. They feed off the energy they get as a franchise described as ‘unpopular’, with a ‘small fan-base’.
Heck, people even said hockey couldn’t exist in New Jersey.
But, 2013 will say a lot about the Devils. With the season days away, questions loom: can the Devils score without Parise? Can Ilya Kovalchuk be the primary goal-scorer and be a leader? And, of course, is Martin Brodeur still able to carry the load as a starting goalie?
A lot of those questions — if not all of them — will be answered within divisional play. The Devils will play 18 of their 48 games within the division, marking a chunk that could define whether or not they are a playoff team.
Sure enough, the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins will be playing with a chip on their respective shoulder because they exited the playoffs earlier than expected last season.
The chances of the Devils finishing fourth in the Atlantic division and making another miraculous run to the Stanley Cup final are slim, but, that same statement would have been made last year, too.
One thing is for sure: the Devils will need to come to play in those 18 games against divisional teams. In a shortened season, any sort of losing streak can cost a team a playoff chance.