Tonight’s game against Detroit will mark the quarter point in the Devils’ season. To say that the team has exceeded expectations would be putting it mildly, in that New Jersey currently holds the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference (tied with Columbus at 23 points). But after watching them play on a regular basis, New Jersey is no fluke, and with a little luck, the team will be battling for a wild card spot just before the season ends.
I say a little luck, because after mounting a five-game win streak in early November, and an unbeaten record at home, the Devils lost their star forward, LW Taylor Hall to injury. Hall played his last game on November 12th, and is expected to be out for two to three more weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee. Since his injury, the team has faltered (two wins and three losses), and is struggled to restart their winning ways.
So, there has been some bad luck already, and there are probably ten more games on the schedule before Hall’s return. Can New Jersey accommodate Hall’s injury and not slide too far down the standings in that time? With parity in the league, giving away even 10 points in a season could be the difference between going home in early April and competing far into the playoffs.
Yes, Wednesday’s 5-4 SO win over Toronto (with its exciting young stars) was a good start for the Devils, but better teams are on the schedule over the next week (Pittsburgh and Chicago) and the wins will be harder to obtain. It will take secondary scorers, like Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, Beau Bennett, and Devante Smith-Pelley, to put the puck in the net (as they did in Wednesday night’s home SO win against Toronto). It will also take PA Parenteau and Kyle Palmieri, who usually play with Hall, to find a way to score, so that very valuable points do not slip away.
As much of a long shot that you think that this might be, don’t count the Devils out just yet. Detroit, Winnipeg, Nashville and Vancouver are also coming up in the next two weeks. And Head Coach John Hynes and his staff have been very impressive in finding ways to get the most out of their personnel. In fact, Hynes has not gotten anywhere near as much credit as he should in figuring out how to get the Devils players to function as a team. Not only is there a more exciting brand of hockey these days in New Jersey, with skating at a premium and the defense looking to jump into the play, the team is enjoying playing for the coaching staff.
Now, the 2016-17 team is facing real adversity for the first time. Is everything they have enough to make them a more cohesive group? The next two to three weeks without Hall will be critical for the Devils. Are they just a flash in the pan, or are they a legitimate playoff team? This time, let’s not underestimate New Jersey. Let’s predict that they come through a bit bruised but a better team for it.