By Dave Turner
Wow, it’s hard to believe that we’re at the halfway point in the New Jersey Devils season already. It practically feels like yesterday when they finally ended the lockout.
As crazy as the first 24 games have been, the next 24 will be even more intense. The playoff run is now. All the points they can possibly get are crucial, especially with the Devils sitting just four points ahead of the 11th place Philadelphia Flyers as of Friday afternoon.
Here are some awards for the first half of the season:
Best Game: February 10th – Devils 3 at Penguins 1 - This was undoubtedly the high point of the season so far. The Devils were on a roll when they came into the back-to-back with the Penguins, but even then, it was tough to imagine winning both games. The Devils did just that, as David Clarkson had two goals against Tomas Vokoun and Johan Hedberg was sharp as New Jersey pulled off an impressive home-and-home sweep.
Worst Game: February 23rd- Capitals 5 Devils 1 – Playing the second game in Washington, the Devils fell apart. Lately, the Devils have played some games that you can argue should be in this spot, but I think this one was the worst. The game was actually tied going into the third period before the Caps, led by Alex Ovechkin, hung four goals on the Devils. This was the beginning of the losing streak and the first of Hedberg’s six straight losses.
Best Individual Performance- Ilya Kovalchuk- Feb 15th vs. Flyers - I know, it’s weird putting a game for Kovy in which he didn’t score, but this was his best game and the best overall game from a forward this year. He had three assists in the comeback win over the Flyers and he was masterful. The Russian sniper was setting up players all day and he made everyone on the ice better that day. When you look at what is “vintage Kovalchuk,” it’s not just about the goals, it’s about what he does for the team as a whole.
Worst Individual Performance- Johan Hedberg- March 4th at Maple Leafs- Sure, Hedberg has played quite a few bad games lately, but this one was the worst. He gave up two incredibly soft goals and the team completely fell apart after playing well for much of the first and second periods. Moose basically played them out of this game, especially when it looked like they might be able to come away with the win going into the final twenty minutes.
Best Forward – Patrik Elias – At 36, Elias has proven that he hasn’t lost a step. He followed up his excellent season last year with another stellar performance thus far. Elias (7 goals, 17 assists) is a point-per-game player for the team this year. He has passed well, scored when needed and he just continues to make crafty veteran plays. Elias has been great and will need to be so the rest of the way for the Devils to solidify a playoff spot.
(honorable mention: Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson)
Worst Forward- Travis Zajac - Now, I’m not going to say that Zajac has been terrible, but he certainly hasn’t been good. Seven points (4g, 3a) for a guy who averages 20:27 of ice time (good for second best among forwards) is not going to cut it. I don’t want to get into the speculation that the contract he recently signed has made him press, but he’s certainly not performing like a player who is now getting 5.5 million per.
(honorable mention: Jacob Josefson)
Best Defenseman- Andy Greene - Greene has been the best and most consistent defenseman on the roster this year. Has he been incredible? No, but he has been strong in the defensive zone and he has pitched in a bit of offense too. Greene has been steady when he has needed to be, with other players struggling and coming in and out of the lineup. He has nine points (2g, 7a) on the year and is a plus-five.
(honorable mention: Adam Larsson)
Worst Defenseman- Henrik Tallinder- You can make the case for quite a few of the defensemen on the team, but Tallinder gets the nod. He has had some tremendous breakdowns that have led to goals. He has sat because of his poor play and now he’s injured. With Peter Harrold showing some skill against the Sabres on Thursday, does this spell the end for Tallinder?
(honorable mention: Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov)
What it all means moving forward:
As bad as the Devils losing streak was, things can get turned around in an instant. Martin Brodeur will be back soon, and if you look at some of the losses, you can even make the case that they should have won a few of those games, mainly the games in Buffalo and in Winnipeg.
This team has to put that streak behind them and look to the not-so-distant future, which is the playoffs. If this team hopes to make the tournament, they’ll have to avoid any long losing streaks. Another four or five-game streak would spell doom at this point. A saying I like to use from time to time is: “You’re never as good as you look when you’re at your best and you’re never as bad as you look when you’re at your worst.” I don’t think this team is a division winner at this point, even though they looked it early on, and I don’t think they’re a cellar-dweller either.
As to where the Devils will finish. I don’t want to predict an actual seed, because I think when all is said and done, you could see teams five through eight in the conference be separated by only a few points.
You’ll see teams gunning for that sixth spot because the Southeast Division looks to be the weakest in the East this season. Thought Carolina is in front without Cam Ward, there’s no telling if one of the other teams could slip into that spot. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Jets or Lightning made a run and even the Capitals have been playing well enough to possibly get back into contention.
One thing is for certain, the Devils will need to be carried by the likes of Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk if they are going to make the postseason. Getting Marty back healthy is paramount and they need Kovalchuk to start scoring like he was earlier in the season.
Will Lou Lamoriello make a trade to improve this team? You have to expect that he will look at every possible chance to do so. Many people have wanted another forward, but I think that if they are going to make a move, it’ll most likely be for a defenseman. With the issues that many of the Devils defensemen have had, bringing in another solid defender would go a long way.
Whatever the case may be, this is the stretch run. Every game is important and every point could possibly make a huge difference at the end. It all starts with a back-to-back against teams that the Devils have lost to this year; Carolina and Winnipeg. The Devils have to come away with at least two points over the weekend.
Best non-Devils DevilsInsiders.com moment: Our writer, Pat Pickens just got engaged! We’re so happy for Pat because he’s a tremendous guy and an equally excellent writer. We wish Pat and his fiancé all the best!