With 10 games remaining in the regular season, now is as good as time as any to look at the road the Devils must go through to get to the playoffs. Currently, they are 43-21-8, sitting in first place of the Atlantic Division. By virtue of having a better record than the Southeast Division leaders, the Atlanta Thrashers, the Devils are second in the Eastern Conference. Making the playoffs is pretty much a lock at this point for New Jersey. However, securing home ice for much of the playoffs as possible is definitely something to strive for. Pay no attention to the last 5 home games. Yes, the Devils have done poorly at home recently; but with a 22-10-5 record, they are not easy to beat at the Continental Airlines Arena.
As an aside, the New York Rangers finally did something correct for a change - they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 on a late third period goal by Jaromir Jagr earlier tonight.
Yes, I'm praising the Rangers - but not much. They're still a bad team in my eyes. All the same, it helps New Jersey since Pittsburgh is 2 points - that's one win or two overtime/shootout losses - behind the Devils. As long as the Devils maintain more wins than Pittsburgh, they'll hold the tiebreakers. For the Penguins to take the division, they need to shine whilst the Devils need to keep doing poorly. With injuries to Patrik Elias, John Madden, and Brian Gionta, it will not be easy.
That said, the Devils control their fate. Let's look at the next ten games, thanks to the schedule at NHL.com.
3/20: @ Toronto
3/22: @ Tampa Bay
3/24: @ Florida
3/27: @ NY Islanders
3/28: @ Buffalo
4/5: @ Philadelphia
4/8: NY Islanders
6 road games, 4 at home, and one back-to-back set right in the middle. The Toronto, Tampa Bay, and Islanders games should all be very tough games. All three teams are fighting to secure a playoff seed. The Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs are currently tied in ninth and tenth place with 78 points (as well as being tied with the Montreal Canadiens, who is in eleventh). Toronto is going to be extra emotional tomorrow as they remember what Cam Janssen indirectly do to Tomas Kaberle. Tampa Bay is still loaded with offense and while the Devils have done well holding Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier back, the Lightning will definitely be aggressive. Their coach, John Tortorella preaches "safe is death" for a reason. The Islanders have played the Devils tough and close all season long, with NJ winning a lot of those close games. They get to see New Jersey twice and expect more of the same closeness.
It's in these three opponents over 4 games where the Devils will miss Elias and Madden the most. Madden is needed to shutdown the opposing team's top lines with Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin (or Erik Rasmussen or...someone one else). That would be vital for any hopes of Devils' victories. Elias would be very useful in providing skill and speed along the left wing with Scott Gomez, where the two can (and should) put the opposing defenses to the sword on breakouts. Plus, Elias is the captain after all - leadership is necessary in situations like this.
Buffalo and Ottawa. Wow. The Devils have beaten both teams before but with Buffalo looking to secure the conference and Ottawa trying to jockey for position, they won't be easy opponents in any sense of the word. If the Devils don't win the division, they're going to get a first round series against a team led by Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Wade Redden. Not fun at all. Buffalo is speedy, they roll four lines, they pack a punch up front (scoring and their forechecking), and the Devils won't be able to match them as best as they can being on the road. If the Devils are still having injury woes, the odds of a Devils win get grimmer and grimmer.
As far as games the Devils should win, well, there are spoilers in this remaining schedule. Boston is really on the outside looking in at this point, but this is the same Bruins team who roundly defeated New Jersey 4-1 earlier this month. Florida has given the Devils their only regulation loss on the road since Christmas; though they're playing for pride at this point. Philadelphia is the worst team in the league, but always manages to get up and play hard against New Jersey; and the Devils face them twice. It is vital that the Devils assert their dominance over these teams. I fear that if the Devils blow these four games, it's going to take some luck (read: Pittsburgh faltering) in order to win the division.
All the same, the cliche says "all we need is one to get going" for a reason. Should the Devils pull off a win at Toronto, against what will likely be a packed house looking for a pound of New Jersey's flesh, against an angry cheap-shot artist Darcy Tucker, and against a team desperate for points (like Carolina, et al) it will be a huge boost to their momentum. Given the 7-2 loss to Carolina, the Devils absolutely need a win soon to get back on track and right the ship, so to speak. Remember, the road to the playoffs is never easy. Fortunately, we can be somewhat optimistic for the Devils have one thing going for them in tight playoff races: