Devils’ dream season continues with first-place showdown at the Rock

After continuing their road dominance this week with wins in Arizona, Washington and Montreal, the Devils will return home to the Rock tonight to a playoff atmosphere for at least the team’s second biggest regular season home game in a decade (the other being when they clinched their one and only playoff berth since 2012 against the Leafs in 2018). Yes, it’s obvious the Devils are going to the postseason and seeding doesn’t matter once you’re there, but there’s still a certain mystique involved when you use the term ‘battle for first place’ in mid-March.

Although part of me is still agnostic toward winning the division – after all, I’ve seen plenty of seasons where top-seeded Devil teams lost in the first round – part of me also wants to avoid the potential annoyance of a Devils-Rangers first-round war and the consternation of worrying how many Ranger fans crash the party at the Rock. Then again, maybe this team would be better served if the Rock was MSG 2.0 given their insane 25-4-4 record away from the Prudential Center this year. Even the mighty Boston Bruins (who have an insane 105 points in 64 games, and actually clinched a playoff spot yesterday) are ‘only’ 23-6-2 away from TD Garden.

This kind of road dominance is unreal – I can only compare it to the 2011 Giants, who went 10-1 on the road and 11-1 away from the Meadowlands, including their second Super Bowl win over the Patriots in four years. It’s hard to compare a sport where you play a max of 20 games to one where you play over 80 before the playoffs start though. Even the Devils’ 1995 and 2000 playoff runs – where they went a combined 20-3 on the road – wasn’t encapsulating an entire season’s worth of games. If you look back at those years, the Devils actually had an under .500 record on the road in 1995’s shortened season (8-14-2) and had more losses than wins in 1999-2000 as well, albeit slightly over NHL .500 (17-15-5-4). It’s just that they turned it on in crunch time away from the Meadowlands in both seasons, culminating in a dramatic double-OT Cup clincher in 2000 at Dallas, home of the then-defending champs.

Even those were veteran teams though, for a young team to be turning it on like this again and again in opposition buildings is mystifying, inexplicable even. It’s a measure of how good this season has been that the Devils are actually on pace to have their best regular season in franchise history, a mark previously held by the loaded 2000-01 defending champions who had 48 wins and 111 points – and they arguably should have had even more since they got off to a sub-optimal start in their first twenty games with the joint holdouts of Jason Arnott and Scott Niedermayer before turning it in gear after both players re-joined the fold. Also the Devils are shooting for individual records, with Jack Hughes still having a chance to set team marks for goals and points in a season while Dougie Hamilton only needs one more goal to set a franchise mark for most goals by a defenseman.

In many ways I actually compare this season more to 1993-94 than 2000-01 though, for it was that season where the long Lou Lamoriello-era run of success was really born. 1987-88’s playoff push was more or less like the modern-day version of 2017-18, an unexpected out of nowhere surge that thrilled the fanbase but didn’t lead to sustained success in the next few years after that, back then it was really 1993-94 where the Devils first established themselves as a force in the making with an unexpected 106-point season. They continued to surprise the establishment in the playoffs with nail-biting series wins over the Sabres (in seven games) and the Bruins (in six games, after going behind 0-2) before the Ranger classic, where they came up just short but set the foundation for a team that won three Cups in the nine years after that.

Where I compare this season to 1993-94 isn’t just based in where the organization was in its history but in a similar season arc – an unexpected battle for first place against a talented, veteran group still searching for playoff success (then the Rangers, this year Carolina). Even the Devils’ increasing question mark over who’s going to start in goal for the playoffs is reminiscent of 1994 with a veteran leading the way at the start of the season in Chris Terreri, eventually getting overtaken by a 21-year old rookie named Brodeur who few expected stardom from. This time around, Vitek Vanecek is in the role of Terreri, the guy who carried the mail early but is perhaps getting overtaken by a rookie making unexpected contributions late in the season. It’s too much to even expect a fifth-rounder like Akira Schmid to have half the career of Marty to this point, but you can’t exactly do better than he has in his eleven starts and fourteen games so far with an 8-4-1 record, a 1.91 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Those were highlights from Schmid’s first NHL win, a relief appearance against Ottawa after Vanecek left with a minor injury. He won his first four starts this year, before losing his next three and being sent down due to Mackenzie Blackwood’s return off of IR. Blackwood going back on IR gave Schmid a second chance and he’s more than made the most of it with a shutout of the Flyers, a critical relief appearance in Colorado when Vanecek was leaking goals and back-to-back wins against the Caps and Habs over the previous three days.

Although Vanecek is likely getting tonight’s critical start – and deservedly so given his 27-7-3 record and all he did to stabilize the goaltending position early on – he might be on a shorter leash now, considering his own declining play and Schmid’s ascension. While you couldn’t really find fault with the goals Vanecek gave up against the Leafs (as they played spoiler again at the Rock for Timo Meier’s home debut), his previous four starts were concerning enough with sixteen goals allowed, a lot of them of the stoppable variety. Including the Toronto game, he’s allowed twenty goals in his last five starts and has never had this kind of workload in a season before, AHL or NHL.

For a team about to set a franchise record for points, the concern in goal is a real one since none of these guys exactly have a proven track record. Then again, the franchise as a whole hasn’t had a track record of success in recent years. This is new territory for a lot of key players, but this is where you rely on vets like Hamilton, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar and the suddenly surging Erik Haula to help steer the kids through the challenges of meaningful hockey in March and playoff hockey after it. Not to mention a veteran coach like Lindy Ruff, who’s been a part of many playoffs and seen it all in the NHL – except a Cup win of his own. It would be a heartwarming story if this organization could get a hockey lifer like Lindy a title, though his own future in the organization is still a bit up in the air given his lame-duck contract status. At least he, and the team have managed to flip the narrative from early October on its head – from Fire Lindy and boos during the home opener to Sorry, Lindy and sold-out crowds all over the map reveling in this year’s return to relevance in the NHL.

Only time will tell if this season is indeed a trend-setter for the next era of Devil dominance like 1993-94 was. There’s no reason not to believe it should be, considering the talent on the roster and the ages of key players like Hughes and fellow franchise #1 overall pick Nico Hischier. Not to mention a masterclass by GM Tom Fitzgerald in building a team that in a normal season would get him a well-deserved executive of the year award. But with the Bruins having a record-breaking season in the East, and the second-year Seattle Kraken going on their own surprising surge in the West there’ll be some competition for both that and the Jack Adams award (best coach of the year).

Pretty much the only thing we know for sure is that tonight will indeed be a rocking sellout crowd. I wasn’t even that upset that I had to miss going to Tuesday’s game against the Leafs, which I also figured would be amped due to the home debut of the newest marquee acquisition, since I rationalized it knowing we’d have bigger games coming up anyway that I would be at. One of them being tonight. Not that tonight’s game will ultimately decide the division though it could make the difference. Still a long way to go even if the Devils should get the regulation win needed to tie them in the standings, given that three of the next four games are against Tampa in what I jokingly kid is a playoff mini-series, albeit one interrupted by a game in Florida.

However the standings end up, as one of the ill-fated marketing slogans of the last few years put it…it’s time to eNJoy the ride.

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