Tomorrow night two great franchises will face after in their first game after the all-star break, to basically get their game together and make a run in the last third of the season. With plus minus 32 games left on the schedule, many teams are gathering up their resources and streamlining their play to try to win a spot in the playoffs.
That’s what the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers will be doing, trying to add two more points to their haul. That’s really important to the New Jersey Devils who missed the playoffs the previous three seasons. And because of that the Devils had to shake up their organization.
To get into playoff shape they moved Ray Shero into the general manager’s job, and made John Hynes the NHL’s youngest coach. They also made some minor offseason moves to bulk up their blueline. Months later now at the All-Star break, the Devils are a respectable 25-20-5 and are a threat, looking serious to end their playoff drought. Many experts think they are on the edge of a postseason spot going into Tuesday night’s game at the Prudential Center against their storied rivals, the New York Rangers.
This is the start of a challenging short month that could make or break them, playing 13 games this month alone. That includes eight games against teams above the Devils in the standings. Five of those eight games are against either the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals or the Rangers. The downside, these teams are 6-0-2 against the Devils when you go back to December 2013. So that’s something the Devils have to change.
“It’s sort of make-or-break time for us to make the playoffs this next stretch,” said Devils forward Lee Stempniak, who came to camp on a tryout basis and now has 14 goals. “It’s in division games so those are points where you beat the teams you’re chasing and you close the gap pretty quickly, and if you lose, it can run away from you pretty quickly. We know the importance of the games coming up.”
The Devils have been able to pick up their scoring a little this season, but the main infrastructure that’s keeping the team in place is All-Star goaltender Cory Schneider and a young upcoming defense.
Schneider as of today is 22-15-5 with a 2.03 goals-against average and an excellent .929 save percentage. That’s why he was at the All-Star game. New Jersey’s total of 114 goals allowed is tied for the sixth fewest in the league, which is only 11 more than the No. 1 ranked Washington Capitals. But when you compare how many goals they’ve scored, it’s just 112 goals, which is fourth fewest in the league. Despite that low scoring, great goaltending has kept them in contention. If the Devils can keep that approach they can remain competitive every night.
“We’re going to do what we have done all year long, which is try to get better every day, and make sure we are doing the right things,” said coach Hynes. “For us it’s not a fluke,” Stempniak said. “We have gotten better each week of the season and I think we are right there. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It’s certainly not a fluke and we have a lot of belief that we are a playoff team.”
When you look at the opposing team, the New York Rangers, they have their own intersting dynamic. By the All-Star break they are still without Rick Nash who just can’t seem to heal %100 and so won’t be playing on Tuesday.
The Rangers are slightly better at 27-17-5 with 59 points, 4 points more than the Devils. They arrived in Greenburgh on Monday for practice ahead of Tuesday’s game in Newark, but Nash didn’t join them on the rink. The injury consists of a bone bruise in his left leg, and that’s kept him out the final two games before the break. He got injured blocking a shot with his left leg on Jan. 22 in the third period of a win in Carolina.
Nash, has 12 goals and 21 assists in 45 games this season. The coach said that he had a CT scan Monday morning, but that scan didn’t reveal any new prognosis or return date. “It’s just a bad bone bruise and it’s taking longer than our medical group thought it would,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “He’s still feeling some pain and having a tough time walking.”
Teammate Ryan McDonagh also didn’t skate Monday. But that doesn’t mean he won’t play since he was allowed to miss practice as he returned from All-Star duties in Nashville.
Nash is a huge loss and blow to the Rangers’ offence. Even though his is not on pace to last year’s career-high of 42 goals, he’s still an important presence on the ice and in the locker room.
“Rick Nash, he’s kind of a quiet leader in our group here,” Derek Stepan said. “He leads by example and he brings it every night he comes. He’s a top-six forward that’s gonna be badly missed, but at the same time injuries happen. Good teams and the great teams find ways to have guys step into roles and make sure it doesn’t hurt our group. We have to find a way to get it done with a big hole up front.”
Stepan is a key player who the Rangers will rely on during the team’s final 33 games, no matter Nash’s status. The center told local media that once he returned from broken ribs on Dec. 18, and having missed three weeks, his play was not 100% because he felt he was still protecting his ribs too much.
He’s gotten more comfortable since iwth his play, and now he’s back in top-six form. He’s gotten six points, 1 goal and five assists, in the Rangers’ last six games before the All-Star break, and told media he says he’s back to his old self.
“The game slows down a little bit when you’re at 100 percent, at least for me,” Stepan said. “When I’m playing, when I feel good about my game and I’m doing the right things, I make more plays because I see more plays. Maybe early on with the injury I wasn’t seeing or I was rushing a play. There’s many things that kind of go with it, but I certainly feel better. Not only that, but my production offensively, creating offense and doing the right things defensively has definitely shown.”
But will that be enough? The Devils seem more hungry and less injured. At home they should have the advantage, and the goaltending match-up, of Lundquist-Schneider could be spectacular. Expect a low scoring game.