If there's one team in the Eastern Conference that's completely flown under the radar this season, it has to be the New Jersey Devils. Fresh off a rare disappointment of a season, in which the Devils fired coach John MacLean midway through the season and missed the playoffs, the Devils are right back in the playoff picture.
They're not the best team in the Atlantic Division or even the New York metro area this year, but that doesn't mean the Devils don't have the ability to go deep in the postseason. We asked John Fischer of Devils blog In Lou We Trust to answer a few question as we prepare for what could be another deep New Jersey playoff run.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Devils heading into the postseason?
Most of my confidence in the Devils heading into the postseason is that they are having far better luck now that they have had since April 2010. In the first round against the Flyers, the Devils shot at around 2%. In the following season, the Devils shot at around 6% until they got hot enough to get closer to 7%,which still placed them last in the NHL. This season, the team has been shooting around league average which has really helped them get to 102 points in the season. Their offense has actual depth in production now and so if they can generate shots on net, then they'll get the goals needed to stay in games if not win them outright.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding New Jersey heading into the playoffs?
The biggest question mark regarding the Devils has to be their shot production. In 5-on-5 play according to Behind the Net, their SF/60 rate is the second lowest in the league at 26.1 - just ahead of the woeful Minnesota Wild. In all situations, they're the fourth lowest in the NHL in shots for per game at 27.5. While most teams struggle when they can't move the puck effectively, the Devils are particularly hampered by it. If their breakouts don't work, their boardplay isn't successful, and they can't string two to three passes together, then their offense becomes very limited. When that happens, the Devils get in trouble.
3) If there's one player on the team that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
I can't speak for the whole fanbase, but I think it'll be Ilya Kovalchuk. He's played in exactly nine playoff games in two series in his entire career. He's gone a long way to disprove many of the criticisms of him this season. Kovalchuk didn't just lead the Devils in goals and points; but he also finished in the top ten in the NHL in scoring with 37 goals, 46 assists, and 310 shots on net. He's been a force all season, and I think this year will show that he can most certainly do it after April.
4) When all's said and done, the Devils' playoff chances hinge on ...
It all hinges on the goaltending. If the defense gets beaten and the offense struggles to even get shots on net, much less goals, then it's going to have to come down to Martin Brodeur being a superhero. There have been several periods and games over the last three months where he's done exactly that. However, his numbers didn't look good early in the season and his save percentage is only closer to league average due to some excellent play in the last three months or so. If he can keep up what he's been doing recently, then the Devils' chances will be that much better. If he struggles, then it becomes that much more dicey.
5) Give a prediction. How far will they go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
I'd love to say the Devils will go all the way, but I don't think that's really likely. I think the Devils will win in the first round, and put up a competitive effort in the second round. If they do that, then a good chunk of the fanbase will be pleased. Getting past the first round will be seen as a real success for a team that hasn't done that since they moved to Newark.
For more on the New Jersey Devils, head over to In Lou We Trust.