Heading into a big week of games against all three of their closest rivals, the Devils express keeps on rolling despite finally hitting a legitimate bump blowing last Friday’s game against Nashville in the final minute, losing in OT the team’s still pacing the NHL with an insane 21-4-1 record through about a third of the season so far. All the more remarkable considering the 0-2 start, and trailing the Ducks 2-0 after the first period of the third game. Since then, you can’t even say the Devils have had a legitimate slump. Perhaps the closest thing to one was last weekend when they followed up the meh game and blown lead against Nashville with a terrible first two periods at Philly the next night, but still managed to come out with a win in the third period thanks to a fortunate goal from Dawson Mercer in the third period off a turnover, and more stunningly good goaltending from rookie Akira Schmid (31 saves).
Since then, the team’s only game was a workman-like 3-0 beatdown of the rebuilding Blackhawks on Tuesday. You wonder what the future holds for franchise icon Patrick Kane, who couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the Hawks’ rise early in his career and the Devils’ ascension now:
Speculation is already starting on where Kane could be on the move to, given his expiring contract and the Hawks’ place in the standings. I’m not even up to thinking about Devils trade deadline speculation yet, it’s been a long time since they’ve had legitimate reason to even consider adding at the deadline. 2017-18 was a nice little reminder but as impactful as Pat Maroon was (for a third-rounder no less!) and as noteworthy as the Michael Grabner trade was, it’s not like either deal was any indicator of the team ‘going for it’ in terms of making a deep playoff run. That year, the goal was just to get to the playoffs. This year, the goals are shifting dramatically in record time – from just hoping to compete for a playoff spot to even entertaining the notion of a deep playoff run is a remarkable shift in itself.
I still think how feasible it is that we should be talking about a deep playoff run this year, then I look over what Tom Fitzgerald might look to upgrade at the deadline and…I don’t really see a lot. Goaltending? That’s been a 180 degree turnaround from last year, led by breakout performer Vitek Vanecek (12-2-1, 2.10 GAA, .922 save percentage and 2 SO, including the one on Tuesday). Even rookie Schmid has pitched in well so far in his four starts and one relief outing this year, going 5-0. A now-on-the mend Mackenzie Blackwood is a conversation for another day, but given the Devils’ place in the standings it probably behooves them to give him a chance to reclaim at least the backup job assuming he gets off IR, if nothing else to potentially enhance his trade value.
Defense? I could see maybe another depth add to potentially rotate with Brendan Smith (though management and the locker room seem to like him as an everyday starter), or at least veteran depth a la many Lou Lamoriello deadline trades in the past. Arguably their go for it moves on D will be more in the vein of keeping Damon Severson and Ryan Graves on expiring deals, rather than trying to flip them. Clearly our D-core has been more than solid this season though. Forwards? Having three guys averaging more than a point a game so far – and all with double digit goal totals – is a nice place to start, especially when two of them are franchise centers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. Could they maybe use one more legit top six winger? I suppose…guess what though? That’s already on the way, when Ondrej Palat returns from injury. Again at this point I only come up with maybe they’ll need a depth add of a physical back six forward to replace Nathan Bastian who’s apparently out of the lineup for the foreseeable future due to an undisclosed injury.
Going through the roster and how they’re performing, you begin to see both why maybe a deep playoff run this year is possible, and why the Devils are off to the sizzling start they are. You do have to remind yourself not to look too far ahead though, especially with around 2/3 of the season still to play. Injuries and slumps could still change the equation. I’m not going to get fully cliché about one game at a time, but certainly we should at least be taking things one week at a time. And this week you can set the records aside, when they play the Islanders (tonight), Rangers (Monday at the Garden) and Flyers again (Thursday at home) with a potential trap game against a very good Stars team on Tuesday mixed in, reality can hit like a ton of bricks.
Our reality is we’re far from clinching anything just yet, and we’re still on a pace that’s seemingly unsustainable for a full season. I mean, right now the Devils are on pace for about a 65 or 66-win season and the NHL record for wins in a regular season is 62, ironically by two teams just before they became iconic back-to-back champs (the ’95-96 Red Wings and the ’18-19 Lightning). Neither team won a Cup that year, and that’s still not really the goal for this team in ’22-23, at least as far as I’m concerned. Especially since a young team in its first playoffs can always be a tricky proposition, and it’s not like there are potentially easy first-round matchups. Odds are we may well be playing a rival team, maybe even tonight’s opponent.
I can’t say I’ve paid as much attention to the Isles this year, not really expecting them to be a Cup contender in the first post-Barry Trotz season either. Plus their ex-Devil contingent isn’t as strong there without Andy Greene, Travis Zajac or even Cory Schneider, though Lou did bring Zach Parise ‘home’ last year, and the now-38(!) year old winger is still a productive middle six player with nine goals and fourteen points in twenty-seven games so far. Things haven’t gone as swimmingly for Kyle Palmieri (6-3-9 in 20 games this year after just a 33-point season last year) since making the cross-town move in a 2020 trade, but hopefully better days are ahead for him personally, after tonight at least. As a team the Isles have played reasonably well so far, though they’ve lost three of their last four – ironically, their only win was also 3-0 over the Blackhawks.
Games are never going to be easy against any Lou team – though our first game was a convincing 4-1 win at Belmont back in October – but at least now we have more than a fighting chance after they (like most of the league) pretty much had their way with us the previous few seasons. While I may be looking on the season as one week at a time for the most part, when you’re playing your three biggest rivals in a single week, it really is one game at a time. For now I’m just enjoying the team’s play and the rejuvenated atmosphere at games, at least when I can go to a game like Tuesday. I’d planned on going tonight as well, but with a sore throat I’ll likely be staying home after all. In a pre-COVID world I’d just be dealing with it to go, but being responsible despite a negative test last night, combined with the fact I haven’t slept all that well because of it the last couple nights anyway are compelling me to pass on going.
At least I’m getting more secure in the belief that there’ll be plenty of other big games to come this season.