With just 11 games left in the regular season, the Devils are gearing up for the playoffs. The team has a lot of strengths heading into the post season, but they have some real question marks as well.
The Devils are just five points away from officially clinching a playoff spot and are almost definitely heading for a first round match up with the poverty franchise from Manhattan. In the last eight days, the Devils played the Lightning three times, and the Panthers and Wild once each. It was a busy week that mirrored a playoff schedule by playing contending teams almost every night. The Devils went 1-2-2 in that stretch which is slightly concerning, although playoff games wont be ending in shootouts or three on three overtime. The Devils showed real improvement throughout the week, especially against Tampa Bay. They went from a 4-1 loss, to a 4-3 shootout loss, to overcoming a 2-0 deficit on the road to win 5-2. That shows the Devils capability of adjusting their game to defeat a highly talented and extremely experienced team such as the Lightning. In a playoff series, overcoming early defeats, coming back from deficits, and being able to adapt your game in order to counter and neutralize your opponents strengths are the keys to success. The Devils showed their ability to do that against one of the NHL’s best teams which should encourage all Devils fans headed into the playoffs.
Vitek Vanecek is one of the biggest question marks the Devils have headed into the post season. He has been absolutely fantastic for stretches of the season, but there have been other times, more recently, where Vanecek has been, to put it kindly, mediocre. In his last 13 games, Vanecek has a save percentage of just .889. That is not just mediocre, that’s down right bad. However, in the month of November, he played 10 games and posted a save percentage of .930, which is far above average. In January he played eight games and had a save percentage of .932, once again, far above average. Heading into the playoffs, which Vanecek we get in goal will be a huge question, especially when Igor Shesterkin is highly likely to be in net for the opposition. The Devils won’t win if Vanecek isn’t at his absolute best against Panarin, Zibanejad, Kane, Taresenko and Kreider. The same is true of the Devils grab first place in the Metro and end up playing the Islanders or Panthers. The Devils do have the option of going to Akira Schmid if Vanecek is unreliable, but as good as Schmid has been in his 16 NHL appearances this year, he is stll only 22 years old with only 26 NHL games played in his career so relying on him is far from a safe bet. Mackenzie Blackwood has been the farthest thing from reliable this year and with his recent injury that he is still recovering from, there is no scenario in which I would be comfortable having Blackwood take the net in a playoff game.
The Devils power play is another question mark that the Devils need to improve on if they want to have success in the playoffs. The top unit of Hischier, Hughes, Bratt, Meier ,and Hamilton has had very little success recently. Last night against Minnesota, that top unit struggled to even set up in the Wild zone on their opportunities. As a result, the Devils went 0-3 on the power play in the 2-1 loss. The Devils power play has been successful only once in their last 10 opportunities and currently ranks 19th in the NHL at 20%. A power play with that much talent on it needs to figure out a way to make the opposition pay for penalties far more often. The zone entries have been sloppy, they commonly lose battle for loose pucks, and they haven’t been able to put rebounds in the net.
One big strength the Devils have is depth. The Devils have playoff experienced veterans players like Ondrej Palat and Erik Haula commonly playing third line minutes while fourth line players like Nolan Foote and Yegor Sharangovich have been playing very well in a fourth line role since they both made it back to the lineup due to injuries to Miles Wood, Nate Bastian, and Curtis Lazar. Michael McLeod has been one of the best in the NHL at winning faceoffs this year, winning over 60% of the draws he takes. He has been better than Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, and John Tavares in the face off circle this year. Kevin Bahl has been getting better on defense seemingly with each passing game and is quickly evolving into a reliable third pair defensive defenseman.Bahl has also started to become more physical. He’s been much less hesitant to use his 230 pounds of body weight to separate the opponent from the puck. Bahl, with his long reach and increased physicality will be a real asset in the intense and tight checking playoff games that are right around the corner.
Lastly, the Devils biggest strength is their top six forwards. The Devils top two lines are chock full of elite talent and are capable of out skating any team in the NHL. Bratt, Hughes, Hischier and Meier are all 30 goal scorers this year. Dawson Mercer is quickly becoming one of the NHL’s best 200 foot forwards. Tomas Tatar has also been very good this year at helping the Devils top two lines maintain possession in the offensive zone. All in all, I am confident that the Devils team can win a playoff series and maybe multiple playoff series. I just would really like to see the power play start clicking and some more consistently good play from Vitek Vanecek.
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Saucy Jack needs to stay focus and out of his head keep doing what gave him success, if it is the Rangers which looks very prominent.
I see the Devils using their lethal speed and skills to annihilate. NY horrendous D
Devils in Max 6 games