|Ilya Kovalchuk (center) has been in the middle of almost everything in Jersey. (US Presswire)|
When discussing the favorites in the Eastern Conference, the teams most commonly mentioned are, of course, the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, the current No. 1 seed New York Rangers, and even perhaps the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The New Jersey Devils, on the other hand, don't seem to get much love. But thanks to a stretch that's seen them go 13-4-2 over their past 19 games, the Devils have skyrocketed up to the No. 4 seed in the East, and as of Monday are tied for the second most points in the conference (72 -- tied with Boston).
The 2010-11 Devils were one of the worst offensive teams the NHL has seen in the past decade (losing Zach Parise for most of the season certainly didn't help), but this year they're getting big-time production and two-way play from Parise, Patrik Elias, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Perhaps the impressive thing about Pete DeBoer's squad is that they have a pretty balanced attack offensively. Seven players have already scored at least 13 goals this season, a list that includes Petr Sykora, a veteran who came into training camp on a tryout contract, and rookie Adam Henrique, one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy.
And let's not overlook the fact that New Jersey's top defenseman this season in terms of overall production and minutes played per game is a 19-year-old rookie, 2011 first-round pick Adam Larsson.
The Devils missed the playoffs last season, in large part because of the aforementioned struggles on offense, ending what had been a run of 13 consecutive postseason trips. They look to be a lock to return this year, and as of right now, look like they could be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference when the regular season ends.
The next step: finding a way to advance past the first round for the first time since 2006-07.