With just five games left in the regular season and a three-point lead on the final Wild Card position, I’m sure as a fan there is a wide array of emotions going on right now. Do I panic that the Devils are going to miss the playoffs? Is it too close of a race to feel confident? Was I wrong to have looked at playoff ticket prices? Devils fans, brace yourselves because I am here to tell you it is completely okay to have your ticket aboard the playoff train. There have been hardships since the 2012 Stanley Cup run so I understand why you may be reserved. However, this is not the Devils of old. This team is one of the future, and that future starts with the playoffs.
Now you may be saying to yourself “But Florida just doesn’t lose and they have games in hand. How can I be confident with a team breathing down our neck?” Well, with the right outlook on things it’s actually rather easy. Let’s start with the basics, shall we? All the pressure is on the Panthers. Having games in hand is all fine and dandy, but if you don’t win your games it doesn’t make any difference. Florida still has to play the Predators and the Bruins three times, who are only one point behind Tampa with two games in hand. Playing your final seven games over an eleven-day span can easily drain the best of teams.
Onto the second point: home/road splits down the stretch. Jersey benefits from having five of their final seven games at home, while Florida has four at home and four on the road. While the Devils are basically even at home and on the road (20-14-4 home/ 20-14-5 road), Florida is much better at home (23-11-3 home/ 16-18-5 road). Add in the fact that they’ve played two games in Canada and follow it up today with a tough game up in Boston and things start to not look so easy for those pesky Panthers.
As we all know, Kinkaid has been all the rage as of late between the pipes. With this, however, comes the obvious question, “Is it sustainable?” With a .924 save percentage over his last 10 games, I do see room for a bit of regression, but if you look at the big picture, you have to ask “Why ISN’T it sustainable?” Kinkaid has now solidified himself as the 1a down the stretch and almost guaranteed to be our goalie come playoff time. There is also something to be said for a guy who is able to play with confidence and not be looking over his shoulder worried about someone stealing his job. On the season, Kinkaid now has a better GAA, save percentage, 5 more wins and the same amount of shutouts as Schneider.
I understand all the sentiment that “we need Cory back for the playoffs” but with the way he has been playing the past two seasons vs. how Kinkaid has progressed and really taken control, why is that still the case? Perhaps now is the time that the level of play Schneider is capable of comes into question and you have to start looking at the fact it may be the beginning of a tailing off in his career.
(Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press)
The final point to take into consideration is just how close and chaotic this Metropolitan Division really is. By the book, it clearly looks like a battle between New Jersey and Florida for that final Wild Card spot, but sometimes you have to evaluate the big picture to truly understand what you are up against. Yes, Florida is only three points back with two games in hand of the Devils, but they also have two games in hand on Philly (only 5 points back with 3 in hand), Columbus (only 6 points back with 3 in hand), and Pittsburgh (7 points back with 3 in hand).
Now do I think they will jump all the way up to the number two spot in the division? No. But is it possible that perhaps the Flyers or Blue Jackets slide and both Florida and Jersey can pass one of those two teams? Absolutely. Something else to consider in regards to Florida, and this has been seen time and time again in sports. Whether it is during the course of a game or a long stretch of the season, sometimes when a team falls behind early they get on a roll and battle back, but in the process the hole was just too big and they burn all of their energy trying to get close only to fall short at the finish line.
Between a red-hot Kinkaid, a locker room filled with confidence, and the fact you are breathing right down the neck of the teams in front of you, the Devils find themselves in a strong position to do what they have all season and hold onto their playoff spot. Remember, it doesn’t matter what your seed is, just that you get to the dance. So Jersey fans, it’s okay to be excited, and it’s also okay to be nervous. My question for you remains: ARE YOU IN!??? This team has been writing a tremendous story, and I don’t see the last page ending with game 82.