NEWARK, N.J. – With the Olympic break nearly behind them and 23 games left in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils know it is time to start winning, or else.
Heading into the homestretch, the Devils have 61 points and are tied with Carolina for 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They are three points behind eighth-place Detroit and the post-season cutoff with six weeks left in the regular season.
This isn’t the Devils of the 1990s and early 2000s, though, a franchise that made the post-season in 19 of 20 seasons and won three Stanley Cup titles. This is a team that missed the playoffs last season and two of the past three. The odd year was a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012.
Coach Pete DeBoer’s team has the goaltending and defence to make another run. The goal production is the weak link and must improve or else the Devils face the possibility of missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the 1980s, when the franchise moved from Colorado to New Jersey.
DeBoer showed faith in this team’s chances of making the playoffs after the Devils finished their first post-Olympic break practice Wednesday.
“I would hope so,” he said. “I think so. I look at the standings, and without a lot of creativity, if we are 50 per cent in our shootouts we are a playoff team sitting where we are now, having dealt with a lot of adversity injury-wise. I believe we are, but talk is cheap this time of year.”
DeBoer spent a lot of time on his vacation thinking of ways for his team to score. The Devils’ 135 goals are the NHL’s second fewest. The low output negates the goaltending of Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur and the play of the defence, which has allowed 146 goals, tied for the eighth fewest this season.
The low-scoring games have led to eight shootouts, and New Jersey has lost every one. It has lost 12 in a row, dating to last season.
Schneider, who has replaced Brodeur as the No. 1 goalie, said the lack of scoring has long been a talking point
“It is an issue,” he said. “It’s not something that we are oblivious to. But it seems like every game we have hit two or three posts and we have a puck in the crease that somehow stays out. I am sure part of that is hard work and tenacity in those areas and putting them away.
“The other thing is just getting some bounces. I think we are happy about our game defensively. We feel it’s there. I know some guys are frustrated, but that’s a good thing. They believe they can do more and score more. If guys were giving up, that would be a bad sign.”
Devils captain Bryce Salvador isn’t worried about the standings. He noted that if the Devils were in eighth place his mindset would be the same. There are still a lot of games, and it is going to be a fight to the end.
“We have to find a way to push the envelope a little more on the offensive side without sacrificing what we are doing on the defensive side,” Salvador said.
Salvador believes the final six weeks will be similar to last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. It is going to be a compact schedule with little time for rest or practice.
“You have to come out of the gate ready at the start,” he said. “You can’t say we’ll take two or three games. You can’t put yourself in that situation.”
The wild card in the playoff run might be the March 5 trade deadline. Devils president Lou Lamoriello hasn’t been hesitant to make a deal.
This year he does not have a lot of talent to offer, with the exception being the 41-year-old Brodeur. He hasn’t played since the Devils’ 7-3 loss to the Rangers on Jan. 26 at Yankee Stadium when he allowed six goals.
“It’s definitely a different situation,” said Brodeur, adding Schneider has been playing extremely well. “I am not used to sit and watch and not be an impact one way or the other.”
Brodeur has a no-trade clause in his contract. He said he hasn’t talked to management about his playing time or a possible trade. He said he wants to play hockey in New Jersey as much as possible.
His focus is the next 23 games.
“There are not many games left,” Brodeur said. “We have to make the best out of this situation we are in. We have a pretty good schedule going to the end of the season so we have to take advantage of it.”