Friday, February 11, 2011

Anyone Notice That The Devils Are Kind Of Really Good Right Now?

I am faced with a massive quandary as a Devils fan right now. In what has been a trying season -- New Jersey has spent most of the season with the League's worst record -- my team is suddenly hot as a pistol and making a wild, bizarre run at the final playoff spot in the East. That playoff spot is still a far, far ways off, but it's an awful lot closer than it used to be. Last night, New Jersey trailed in the third period in Toronto before Ilya Kovalchuk pushed himself end-to-end and fired a game-winner past James Reimer in the waning seconds of overtime.

And just like that the deficit was down to 13.

Now that may not seem like the most exciting revelation. After all, New Jersey is still third to last in the Eastern conference. But that 13-point deficit was 24 points not so long ago, and with 27 games remaining there is ample time for that deficit to start dropping bit by bit. In fact, that win over Toronto Thursday night has pushed New Jersey's mark to 11-1-2 in its last 14 games, which easily makes them the hottest team in the League at the moment. Thursday night was the Devils' second consecutive overtime victory after defeating the Hurricanes in OT Tuesday at The Rock -- a game I was actually in attendance for -- and it now may have the New Jersey building the adequate momentum to make a serious run at the final postseason seed.

The win in Toronto also put coach Jacques Lemaire in the 600-win club, a feat that was written up by some anonymous lackey at

Lemaire's accomplishments are a pivotal part of the story, of course. The man who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup Championship in 1995, has showed a remarkable ability to get the most out of his teams -- as he did with the Devils a season ago in what was expected to be a one-season return to the Garden State before moving on into retirement. What he has done so far this season, however, may eclipse anything else he's done. New Jersey was 9-22-2 when Lemaire was brought in to replace company man John MacLean on Dec. 23. At that point the idea of a playoff run was well off the team's radar -- and in likelihood it still is. Instead for the Lemaire, the challenge was to remind the players that not only were they professionals, but they were expected to be Stanley Cup contenders when the season began.

Rediscovering the Devils' confidence under Lemaire has been a rough process -- New Jersey went 1-7-0 in its first eight games following the coaching change, culminating in a home-and-home sweep at the hands of the hated Flyers. Since then, there has been a change, however. And the results have been staggering.

New Jersey was 27 points behind eighth-place Montreal on Jan. 9. In 14 games, the deficit has been halved.

With 27 games remaining there is certainly time for the Devils to get closer and closer, and while they would likely have to continue playing at the same remarkable pace of the past month, fans like myself have slowly started to believe that anything is possible. So why not?

Well, probability is one reason to believe why not. Cool Standings as of today still lists the Devils' chances of making the postseason this year at less than .1%, and I generally find a reliance on numbers and statistics to be the likely outcome in the long run. But without knowing the actual math they use, I'm not sure they can account for intangibles like momentum, but I can also attest, mathematically speaking, to a belief in regression to the mean and the law of larger numbers. All season long the Devils have been playing beneath their expectations and their talent level, but the larger the sample size -- in this case, 82 games -- the more likely the Devils' final record should approach their expected performance this season.

Now the Devils were expected to compete for a division title against the likes of defending-Eastern Conference Champion Philadelphia and 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh. While the chances of winding up in that race are just about nil, sneaking into the postseason with the final seed, if this team continues to return to its expected level performance over the long haul, certainly doesn't seem all that outlandish to me.

So that aforementioned quandary is this. Do I lament the likely loss of the Devils first potential top-five draft pick in decades, which could be used to patch a number of holes? Or do I get behind the improbable comeback?

Is it likely? Probably not. In fact, earlier this week I decided that I would wait until New Jersey had closed the gap to 10 points, and that it would have to happen by the 61st game of the season, before I fully invested myself emotionally in the prospect of the Devils making a stunning and unlikely playoff run. But with five games and only three points to go before that threshold, I'm starting to believe. It's only been a month of this season that the team has actually shown any signs of life, but now they're as lively as can be. And if they knock off the hottest team in the West in Newark tonight, (though I should note tonight's Chicago-Dallas game is also pretty intriguing as this preview attests) things could really get interesting.

And then I'd really start to believe that it's possible. In the end, short of a Championship, believing, in any season, is all you can really hope for.

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