Sunday, March 30, 2008


So Who Are These Devils?

The Devils broke a five game winless streak on Friday in a rather utilitarian (read: ugly) manner. Up to and including March 15, the Devils were at the top of the Atlantic Division and trading spots with Montreal for first in the conference. Things were good, the team was confident, and the Devils looked to be contenders once again.

Then they proceeded to only pick up 1 point in the next 5 games. No wins. The Devils were not only falling from the top of the conference, but also from the top of the division. In a little more than a week; the Devils found themselves fighting for seeds #4 through #8. Instead of clinching a playoff berth for the 11th season in a row, they remain a few points short. Although, the recent win pretty much ensures the Devils' spot according to James Mirtle's metric, this was terrible. 2 Man Advantage wasn't happy. IPB wasn't happy. I surely wasn't happy. And even with the win, the Devils recognize that they need to step it up and get wins (source: Star Ledger). Prior to the Flyers game, I got a question from long time reader Tim:
You have to help me, sir. You have to help me understand. How the Devils, at the most crucial time of the year, have lost 5 straight, all to divisional rivals. How they fell from 1st in the Conference to 5th and maybe 6th, and maybe 7th or 8th by the time they are through. How a team that could win 11 straight to win the division just a couple years ago can tank and forget how to score goals. How a team that looked legitimately strong and a legitimate Cup contender will once again maybe get past the first round but no further. What kind of team do we have, sir? What kind of team? I thought a true force, I was sadly mistaken.
To be honest, Tim. I really don't know. Pookie and Schnookie addressed the question of whether the team has been overachieving or underachieving this season in a podcast. According to Gulitti's blog - also before the Flyers game - Sutter likes the team as it is. However, I don't know because I don't think we can't even make this decision as it is. Yes, they dropped 5 games at the worst possible point in the season. But they also rose up to snag first place and held onto it in February and for the first half of March. The last time the Devils had first in the Eastern Conference was back in 2001, so that's a huge accomplishment. Even with the recent spell of bad hockey, the Devils still have a very solid record of 43-28-7 and they are at no reasonable risk of missing the playoffs. The Devils accomplished far too much this season for them to be mere pretenders and artful dodgers.

As shown by the stats at; the Devils also have excellent resilience. They have the 5th best record in the league when they give up the first goal (16-21-3); the 6th best record in the league when trailing after the first period (6-13-1); and the second best record in the league when trailing after the second period (7-21-2). When you consider those records, you can't seriously say that they are just playing out of their minds. To me, that shows an ability to not be completely discouraged and fight hard to get something out of those games. Teams that underachieve definitely do this, and you don't get to be near the top in those categories by simply overachieving.

Furthermore, consider who this team is built upon. As alerted to me by alert reader Scott, points out that Martin Brodeur has literally been the rock at The Rock. Brodeur has played in an absolutely remarkable percentage of the Devils' games. He certainly does keep the Devils in games where they really shouldn't have been. However, that's not because Marty is playing above his level - he does it by playing at just his level. 40+ win seasons are regular for this guy. Brodeur isn't over or under achieving; he's just achieving. Given that, how can we truly determine is the Devils are over/under-achieving? If we say that the team goes as Marty goes, and Marty is just simply Marty, what then?

Lastly, consider the last few seasons. Yes, scoring is at a premium and has been done by committee for the most part, with the Devils not reaching a total of 250 goals for since 2000-2001. Regardless, the team has been a contender despite this. The best example was the 2002-2003 season. The Devils had their best record in terms of points with 108 points. Yet, the Devils didn't even have anyone finish with more than 60 points (Patrik Elias led with 57); no goal scorers with more than 30 (Elias had 28 goals and too many hit the post); a power play; and the fewest amount of goals scored in team history (206, though this season may break that). They won the Stanley Cup that season. That team is proof that reliable, consistent scoring is not a prerequisite for success (although it helps); as long as the team shows up, works hard, plays smart defense, and scores when necessary. Does that sound a little familiar for this season? I'd say so. Did that team overachieve? I am hesitant to say so considering the team still had 100+ point seasons since then with most of the same core of players. Especially last year's team where despite the inconsistent offense, they set a franchise record for wins.

Basically, to sum up my spiel, there are far too many mitigating circumstances to say the team has overachieved. We've seen this before and we've seen both bad streaks and excellent streaks. While the scoring has been inconsistent, the team has consistently remained in the top 8 since November, and ended December at the top of the division. Ultimately it will fall to how the Devils do in the playoffs to say whether the Devils have been playing above or below their capability. Should they unceremoniously flop out of the first round, I'd say they overachieved. Should they look good and go deep, well, nobody can say they overachieved. Right now, I'm just content with what the team has done and so I cannot answer your question Tim. It's all up to what the team does at this point anyhow.

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That's as good of an answer as I can find anywhere, my good sir. Much appreciated. I know I fall too quickly into the doom-and-gloom category, I just really thought this year that the Devils could beat anyone in the playoffs, and now they look again like maybe they will win the first round and no more. Dang. But they could surprise us, they have been quite good this year and I must give them that. Thanks again, and good luck Devils!
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