The next seven days for the New Jersey Devils will be critical as they continue to try and turn around their season. The Devils are currently in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division, but remain just three points behind Carolina for third place and a guaranteed playoff spot. They play four games, including a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday night, and three of the four opponents are in a top two spot in their respective divisions.
The first game is Wednesday night against the perceived “easiest” opponent, the Ottawa Senators. The Senators have as many wins and points as the Devils, and are currently in sixth place in the Atlantic Division. The Devils cannot afford to overlook the Senators, who are coming off of a 3-2 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues. New Jersey lost to the Senators in their only meeting of the year 5-2, with Craig Anderson stopping 42 of the 44 shots he faced. The defense will certainly have to key in on forward Bobby Ryan, who has six points (2 goal, 4 assists) in his last five games.
After a day off on Thursday, the Devils face a grueling stretch of three games in four nights, against some of the best teams the NHL has to offer in the Anaheim Ducks, Washington Capitals, and Chicago Blackhawks. The Ducks and Blackhawks are the top two teams in the entire NHL, and sandwiched in between them are the division rival Capitals, who are currently second in second place. New Jersey has only played the Ducks so far this season, a game that saw the Devils complete a thrilling come from behind 4-3 overtime victory.
All three teams are the same in this aspect: they score, score, and score some more. Each team is in the top seven in the league in goals per game, and the Blackhawks lead the entire league by a wide margin. They all play an up tempo style, and bolster offenses that can roll out three strong scoring lines.
For the Devils to be successful against these top teams, they will need to play defensively sound, mistake free hockey. This team cannot afford to get into high scoring games; they simply do not have the offensive fire power to keep up. The Devils allow the fewest shots per game in the league (24.5 SA/G), and that will need to continue this week. They cannot allow 30+ shots a game, like they did in their last victory against the Lightning. Tampa Bay doesn’t have the weapons to make the Devils pay for allowing that many shots (at least until Steven Stamkos returns), but the Ducks, Capitals, and Blackhawks have plenty of snipers on their rosters.
Another aspect of New Jersey’s game that must continue is their strong fore-check. In every single win this season, the fore-check has been dominant for a large part of the game. The roster is designed to keep puck possession in the offensive zone, and wear down the opposing team as they attempt to clear the zone. Although it can be frustrating at times when the team isn’t scoring, the continuous hard work below the opponent’s goal line eventually leads to outstanding scoring chances. It’s just a matter of whether or not they can bury those chances into the back of the net.
I personally will be thrilled if the Devils can manage to get four out of the possible eight points in these next seven days. The Devils are going against four very strong opponents, many of which have Stanley Cup or bust aspirations. Expecting this team to rattle off four straight wins would be unrealistic. With that being said, the Devils can not allow themselves to fall into a long losing streak, despite the competition they‘re going against. They are bunched together with a handful of teams in the Metropolitan Division, and a bad week could put this team into a hole that will be hard to climb out of the rest of the season.