In trying to wrap my head around all 30 NHL teams, I find it’s easiest if I have a measuring stick in which to compare different franchises.
The gold standard in the West has been the Detroit Red Wings and with good reason. Not only are they the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they’re a consistently elite team with a particular style and not a lot of turnover in the lineup; I know what I’m getting when I watch the Red Wings.
I’m still not completely on the San Jose playoff bandwagon, but the fact the Sharks beat Detroit in the rivals’ last meeting bodes well for the Bay Area Rollers. Similarly, the Columbus Blue Jackets have cut their teeth this year, beating the Wings the past two times – and lord help the Sharks if they meet the Jackets in the first round, because that will be far from an easy series.
In the Eastern Conference, it’s been more difficult to find that measuring stick, but I’ve safely settled on the New Jersey Devils. While the Boston Bruins are statistically superior in the standings, the B’s are also streaky due to injuries. The Washington Capitals are super-fun to watch, but clearly the key to beating them is counterattacking when Mike Green has joined the rush, as the L.A. Kings so willingly exposed recently.
Philly’s fortunes are tied to its goaltending, which changes complexion from week-to-week.
The Devils, on the other hand, offer a great template. They are coached well and put together well. The emergence of Zach Parise as an elite scorer this season has lifted many New Jersey boats; Patrik Elias is on pace for his best offensive season since 2000-01’s 96-point campaign; Jamie Langenbrunner is on pace for his best offensive season; and Travis Zajac has already eclipsed his best NHL campaign with 48 points.
Goaltending, despite the absence of Martin Brodeur, has also been very consistent thanks to Scott Clemmensen’s breakout campaign. And if you think Clemmensen is only succeeding because of the New Jersey “system,” talk to the people who slam a defense corps led by unglamorous names such as Johnny Oduya, Colin White and Paul Martin and get back to me when you’re done fighting.
The ironic corollary of this whole thing is that New Jersey got played by the red-hot Florida Panthers Tuesday night. Tomas Vokoun was outstanding, the Cats were opportunistic and the Devs found themselves flummoxed and on the wrong end of a 4-0 decision.
And this is exactly why New Jersey is such a good measuring stick – in fact, coach Brent Sutter said so much in post-game comments to the New York Post: “They were, to some degree, measuring themselves up against us, and emotionally, we weren't at the level we were last week.”
To beat the Devils is to beat a team of smart, savvy players: Langenbrunner, Bobby Holik, John Madden…well, pretty much the whole lineup. For the Cats to come out of the night with a ‘W’ says more about Florida’s drive to make the post-season than it does about New Jersey’s slightly-off night.
And if I’m in the Eastern Conference, the Devils are a team I do not want to face at any point in the post-season.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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