New Jersey Devils: Anything Can Happen In The Playoffs

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 27: Andy Greene
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 27: Andy Greene /

The New Jersey Devils have just completed a season for the ages, defying all odds to secure themselves a spot in the NHL’s “big dance.” Just like the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, anything can happen in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

Quick look back: How did the Devils get here?

The Devils began the season 22-9-6, with scorching starts from Brian Gibbons, Jesper Bratt, and Brian Boyle helping the Devils wildly exceed expectations. From there, the Devils fell off a cliff, stumbling to 11-16-2 over the following 29 games. The Devils won four of their next seven games, and then went on an absolute tear, going 7-0-1 and needing every last point to squeeze into the playoffs. The Devils lost their final game of the season, while resting several star players, and continuing the theme of the previous month, got absolutely no outside help as they fell into the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and were banished to the vaunted Atlantic Division gauntlet.

Just as many were quick to discount the Devils at the start of the season, many are now writing off a first-round loss as inevitable for the Devils. Maybe next year, they say. But the Devils aren’t waiting for anything.

Slaying the Dragon

The Devils will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, the top team in the Eastern Conference. Still, the Bolts shouldn’t scare the Devils much.

I was never one to read too much into how many points a team has when judging the strength of their team. After all, why should losing two games in overtime count the same as winning a game? Once you focus on the wins column, the picture of a David-Goliath matchup starts to change.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have won 54 games this season. Sure, that is a lot of wins, but the Devils have 44. Should a team that has won just ten more games be considered such a heavy favorite? Yeah, the Lightning received a ton of help at the deadline, but the Devils also added plenty in Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner, and Johansson is just about ready to return to the ice.

The Lightning might have Nikita Kucherov, but the Devils have Taylor Hall. The Lightning may run four lines deep, but so do the Devils. Andrei Vasilevsky, meet a player who has gone save-for-save with the best of them for the past two months: Keith Kinkaid. Quite frankly, this matchup is a lot more even than some are painting it to be. Oh, and the Devils have gone 3-0 against the Lightning and are the only team to sweep the Lightning this season in the entire Eastern Conference (per Hockey Reference).

2nd-Round Opponent

The winner of the Maple Leafs-Bruins series will play the winner of the Devils-Lightning series. Neither the Bruins nor the Maple Leafs is all that frightening.

The mighty Bruins won 50 games this season. The Devils should be scared of them because… the Devils have won six fewer games? Sure, the Bruins are gritty and have loads of young talent, but the Devils arguably have them beat in both categories. Remember, with all the speed on this Devils team, at any moment the Devils can score.

The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have 49 wins. Granted, they have one of the greatest players in the NHL in Auston Matthews, and their depth is enviable. But again, the Devils have Taylor Hall and four lines of support behind him, along with one of the best-performing goaltenders over the past two months.

Sure, the Maple Leafs, Bruins, and Lightning all rank in the top four in powerplay percentage leaguewide (per the NHL), but the Devils are no slouches themselves, ranking at number ten. Furthermore, the Devils rank eighth in penalty-kill percentage and lead the league in short-handed goals. Contrary to the narrative many are trying to spin, the Devils have not lucked into the playoffs will not be an easy out. The Devils have plenty of strengths and skills which will keep any opponent on their heels.

A History of Low-Seeded Success

In a league with so much parity, it is dangerous to call a series over before it even starts. Just last year, the Western Conference points-leading Chicago Blackhawks not only lost to the 41-win Nashville Predators, but were swept. The Predators beat another division winner, the Anaheim Ducks, in six games. The 40-win Toronto Maple Leafs took the president’s trophy winning 55-win Washington Capitals to six games, as every game was a one-goal game and three Capitals victories required overtime.

In 2016, the 56-win Capitals needed six hard-fought games to dispatch the pesky Flyers, as did the 50-win Dallas Stars to knock off the 38-win Minnesota Wild. The list goes on and on, including the Devils very own cup-run in 2012 which ran through the New York Rangers, winners of the president’s trophy that season.

Are the Devils Hopeless?

No, and far from it.

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This is not to say that they should be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, or that they will sweep the Lightning. It’s simply a reminder that the NHL is a league with little separating the bubble teams from the top teams. Thus, the playoffs generally feature tight series’, and a favorite sweeping an underdog is the exception, not the rule.

At worst, the Devils lose a hard-fought series to the Lightning which goes into five or six games. But I would not count out the Devils just yet. This may not be the popular opinion, and maybe I have gone a bit mad after not watching Devils playoff hockey for six years, but I think a series between the Devils and Bruins/Lightning/Maple Leafs/anyone is essentially a toss-up. With speed, a red-hot goaltender, health, and Taylor Hall on their side, the Devils appear to have the slight edge over anybody they face.

So bring it on, Bruins, Lightning, Penguins, Maple Leafs, Capitals, Jets, and whoever else the Stanley Cup throws our way. No more waiting.