In coach John Hynes’ first season, expectations weren’t high for the Devils. In a rebuilding year where they were expected to be one of the NHL’s doormats competing for projected top pick Auston Matthews, they have surprised many with a better season than anticipated.
Entering tonight’s home match against the Flyers, the Devils are in the first wildcard with 65 points in 57 games. Winners of three straight including backup goalie Keith Kinkaid’s first career shutout against the Kings, they lead the Penguins by a point. Pittsburgh is tied with the Lightning in points (64) but has two less regulation/overtime wins. The first tiebreaker. Playing their 58th game in Newark, the Devils will have played three more games than the idle Pens. Pittsburgh can make up ground.
The biggest reason for the Devs’ success is the outstanding play of number one goalie Cory Schneider. The heir apparent to Martin Brodeur, who had his number retired in a fantastic ceremony a week ago, the 29-year old Massachusetts native is having a season to remember. On the league’s lowest scoring team, Schneider leads the league in goals-against-average (1.98), ranks third in save percentage (.931) and has won 25 of the Devils’ 29 games. He’s also posted four shutouts.
While most of the accolades have gone to the Caps’ Braden Holtby, who boasts a 35-6-3 record, 2.16 GAA and .926 save percentage, Schneider has done more to keep his team in the playoff race than any other netminder. That includes the Panthers’ Roberto Luongo, Detroit’s Petr Mrazek and Chicago’s Corey Crawford, who leads the NHL with seven shutouts. Regarding the other contenders, only Mrazek plays on a team whose offense doesn’t rank in the top 10. The Red Wings currently are tied for 17th in offense averaging 2.54 goals-per-game. Holtby gets the most run support with the Caps averaging a ridiculous 3.30 goals-per-game. Crawford plays for the Hawks, who are seventh best at 2.82.
By comparison, the Devils are last in offense averaging a paltry 2.19. They don’t score much yet lead the league in GAA with a 2.14. They have allowed the fewest goals (124) by virtue of three more games played (57) than the Caps, who have to make them up due to a blizzard that hit the Northeast. Schneider is the one constant. Since the All-Star Game, he’s allowed two goals-or-less in all five starts with a 3-1-1 mark. In fact, he’s allowed more than two once over his last dozen starts dating back to Jan. 10. He’s posted a 1.58 GAA (19 GA on 346 shots) with a .945 save percentage. The Devils’ record in those starts is 8-3-1.
Offensively, the Devils don’t pack much punch. Still minus second leading scorer Mike Cammalleri, who won’t return tonight, they’re doing it with smoke and mirrors. Remarkably, Lee Stempniak is their leading scorer with 40 points (15-25-40). A free agent invite who made the team out of camp, he’s done as much as possible. Not surprisingly, he has no goals in his last six. Leading goalscorer Kyle Palmieri has also cooled off with just one assist and no goals over the last nine. They need him to pick it up.
Adam Henrique ranks third on the team with 37 points and second in goals with 19. A smart two-way player who is always a threat on the penalty kill, he’s tied for the team lead with partner Travis Zajac in shorthanded goals (2). Since his rookie year when he eliminated the Panthers and Rangers during the club’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final in ’11-12, he’s always had a knack for the clutch. His five game-winners pace the team. After hitting a cold stretch, Henrique has five points (3-2-5) over the last five.
As for Zajac, he continues to be the team’s most reliable faceoff man going 51.2 percent so far. He’s added eight goals and 20 assists in 49 contests. While he’ll never be what he was with ex-Devil Zach Parise, the 30-year old remains a key veteran presence who can be trusted in any situation. His penalty killing work with Henrique is spectacular. As a team, the Devils rank eighth on the PK at 82.9 percent. Zajac has been good lately with points in five of his last six. He also had a four-point outburst in a 6-3 win over Ottawa on 1/21.
Without the recent contributions of youngsters Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher (goal/helper in win over Oilers), the Devils would be in worse position. Particularly Blandisi, who they signed as a rookie free agent following a big year with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. As a 20-year old overager, he exploded for 112 points (52-60-112) ranking fourth in OHL scoring.behind Connor McDavid, Mitchell Marner and Dylan Strome. The 21-year old didn’t spend much time in Albany. After posting 21 points in 24 games, he was recalled. In 18 contests, he has four goals and seven helpers. Nine of his 11 points have come over the last 10 games.
In a year where shutdown tandem Andy Greene and Adam Larsson haven’t contributed much offensively due to their defensive assignments, the Devils have gotten unexpected production from David Schlemko from the back end. He leads all Devil defensemen with seven goals including four game-winners with a huge power play goal coming in a 3-2 home win over the Rangers. John Moore has been an overtime hero scoring twice to win games. With Damon Severson struggling in his second year and Eric Gelinas continuing to look more like an AHL player, the Devils have needed Schlemko’s contributions.
There’s a dramatic drop off between the Devils’ top six forwards and the bottom six. Waiver wire pickup Bobby Farnham has the most goals with seven. Jacob Josefson is used on the power play and penalty kill. Eight of his 11 total points have come on the man-advantage. Hynes also likes to use him in the shootout. Sergey Kalinin, Jordin Tootoo and Stephen Gionta are role players who don’t bring much offense.
The Devils could really use franchise leading scorer Patrik Elias. In what’s probably his final season, the popular 39-year old two-time Stanley Cup winner has been a lifetime Devil. He’s scored a franchise best 407 goals with 615 assists and 1,022 points. Also franchise records. Unfortunately, injuries including right knee surgery have limited him to 13 games. If he can return by March, maybe he can be like a deadline acquisition.While it seems unlikely, keep in mind this could be it for number 26, who no doubt will join Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko up in the rafters.
If they are to hang in the race, it’ll be due to Schneider who in our view deserves to win his first Vezina. He can’t do it alone. With the trade deadline 13 days away at month’s conclusion, Devils GM Ray Shero faces a tough decision. Does he look to add a piece and go for it in a weak conference? Realistically, it doesn’t make sense. But as we know, a hot goalie can steal a series and make things interesting. Or will Shero decide to see what he can get for Stempniak? Much depends on when Cammalleri returns. He could be the jolt the team needs.
Either way, it’s been a feel good story for Jersey’s Team. They’ve given their fans a lot more to cheer about. No matter what happens, it’s been a positive year for the Devils.