After a poor showing in San Jose Wednesday night, the Devils stumble into Anaheim to face the Ducks, where they’ll have the best chance to claim a victory during their lengthy Western Conference road trip.
GM Lou Lamoriello is still clinging to the “it’s early” defense of his struggling team that has claimed just five points through 10 games, a pace that would have placed them just above the woeful, league-worst Edmonton Oilers last season. No one thinks the Devils can stay this bad forever and the return of top defenseman Anton Volchenkov from injury will help, but if New Jersey doesn't get its act together soon, it may be too late.
It took 88 points to clinch the bottom playoff spot in the East last season, but traditionally a playoff berth in the East has required a little over 90 points. For the Devils to surpass the 90-point threshold, they’ll need 85 points over the next 72 games, a rate of 1.18 standings points per game. We’ll call that their Playoff Pace. If the Devs come home winless from this road trip, their Playoff Pace will rise to 1.25.
To put that in perspective, last season, when the Devils finished second in the East with 103 points, their points per game rate stood at 1.26. Simply put, they will need to play about as well as they did all last season during their remaining schedule just to make the playoffs. (And 90 points is no guarantee either.) At that point the “it’s early” defense will be as solid as a Kleenex during cold and flu season.
Lou's lads weren't always solid last season, however. In fact the Devs hit at 3-7-1 skid from Jan. 14 - Feb. 2. So obviously slumps of this kind can be overcome. It's just tough that this team appears to be setting itself up for a lot of heavy lifting late in the season.
Safe to say, the Devils could use a W against the Ducks tonight. Here are three keys to check out when the action starts on The Pond.
Hustle and Flow
There was a two- or three-minute stretch against San Jose when Devils players collided with one another about four times, including one instance when three Jersey players converged on the puck only to get in each other’s way. Obviously that’s not the mark of a team skating in its comfort zone.
That’s been a bit of a broken record for the Devils in the early going. Whether it’s been Ilya Kovalchuk skating on the right wing instead of the left, or players filling unusual roles due to the small, salary cap-restricted roster size, the Devils haven’t looked truly comfortable all year. But they have to put that behind them now and come out hungry and firing on all cylinders.
It’s tough to call a game in late October a “must win,” but with upcoming bouts with the Kings, Canucks and Blackhawks, this roadie has the potential to get truly ugly if the Devs don’t stop their skid. And tonight is the best chance to do so, largely because of …
Anaheim’s Horrible Defense
Only two Ducks who have played five or more games this season own a positive CORSI rating.
To review, that means that whenever Bobby Ryan or Ryan Carter aren’t on the ice, Jonas Hiller is seeing more rubber than I-5 (or “The 5” for our California friends) at rush hour. Anaheim has given up the most goals in the NHL … well, actually the Ducks are tied with the (gulp) Devils in that category. Still, if there’s ever a chance for New Jersey’s stagnant offense to break out, tonight’s the night.
“Your Top Players Have to Be Your Top Players”
That quote comes from GM Lou Lamoriello speaking to The Record’s Tom Gulitti regarding the job security of head coach John MacLean. Lamoriello is heading out to Anaheim tonight, but says the notion that he’ll fire MacLean when he gets there is “ridiculous.”
It’s a very just stance for Lamoriello. After all, MacLean’s actions don’t seem to be the No. 1 cause of the Devils’ repeated failures in the first part of the schedule. New Jersey was expected to have one of the top offenses in the league this season, but aside from seven glorious minutes at Prudential Center, it’s fallen flat and has produced the fewest goals in the league (17). That puts the team’s goal differential at minus-18, double the second worst margin … which happens to be owned by tonight’s opponent, the Anaheim Ducks.
The team's top scorers need to start being dominant. And the wide-open ice in Anaheim could be exactly what the Devils need to pick up their game and push themselves back from the ledge.