It’s been a tale of two seasons for the New Jersey Devils.
They hit the halfway mark of the season in last night’s much needed 3-2 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. With an 11-8-5 record, they are barely holding on in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Devils are one point ahead of the eighth-place New York Rangers and four ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, who are tied for ninth.
If the first half of the season proved anything, it showed that we don’t truly know what to expect from the Devils.
New Jersey opened the season with points in five straight games, struggling to find consistency. After winning their first three games, the Devils dropped its next four.
A 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins served as an early season wake-up call for the Devils. New Jersey went on a tear in its next seven games. They won five straight, including a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins. After 12 games, the Devils sat at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Adam Henrique acknowledged that start was crucial to this shortened season.
“Very important,” he said after a recent loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “If it was the other way around, who knows, it might be a different story right now. We have a confident group in here, we’re not panicking, we know what we have to do to win here. We just have to keep going and we’re going to be alright.”
The next 12 games would erase that hot start. They won just three times over that span, and twice in the last seven games. The six-game losing streak was the longest since December of 2010, the last time the Devils missed the playoffs. Goal scoring disappeared, the puck bounces went against them and the losses came quick.
The losing streak showed just how precious each point is during this shortened season. New Jersey gained just three of a possible 14 points in its last seven games, falling six spots in the standings. They hit the halfway point with a disappointing 27 points. The Devils are on pace for 54 points, which could be enough for a spot in the playoffs. That may mean another low seed and uphill climb to repeat as Eastern Conference champions.
David Clarkson said he felt a recent win would help turn things around.
“Every team goes through struggles, goes through tough times,” he said. “It’s how you handle it and how you finish. We don’t have many game here, so we’re going to have to come out and play hard the rest of the season”
Injuries certainly helped slow down the Devils. The most glaring is Martin Brodeur, who has missed seven games with a back injury. He could miss anywhere between a week and a month. Dainius Zubrus also had surgery on his left wrist, forcing New Jersey to make the move for Alexei Ponikarovsky.
DeBoer wouldn’t blame injuries for New Jersey’s slide into the halfway point of the season.
“When Marty went down, I think there was a real confidence level,” he said. “Everyone has confidence in Johan Hedberg and his track record here merits that. I think it was a perfect storm. I think we went through a week or 10 days where we didn’t get rewarded for some of our work, we didn’t get some bounces, we didn’t help ourselves in certain situations and it snowballed on us.”
The Devils faced a similar situation last year. Entering the halfway mark of the 2011-12 season, New Jersey was tied with Toronto in eighth place entering the all-star break last season before going 22-9-3 to secure a playoff berth. They may need a similar record to once again make the playoffs.
With its losing streak ended, DeBoer said it’s time New Jersey makes its move.
“Hopefully, that’s the end of it and we can move this thing in the positive direction now,” he said.