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How the first two months can royally screw your NHL season

There's no guaranteeing that the New Jersey Devils will return to the playoffs this year. They still have a roster of oddly-fitting parts, one that's now short a true No. 1 center until 2012 with Travis Zajac's(notes) injury, playing in front of a legendary netminder who like Sgt. Murtaugh before him is getting too old for this [expletive].

But to see the Devils with 18 points after two months of the season, for the second straight season, would be surprising. After all, Pete DeBoer is an NHL coach while John MacLean was impersonating one. So that's an advantage right there.

If they are terrible in the first two months of the season, then chances are they're not going to be invited to the playoff cotillion.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are were in the same situation last year: Terrible start, roared back into contention thanks to James Reimer(notes) and then fell short. As Dion Phaneuf told Sportsnet:

"The other thing is every game is so important. The reason we didn't make the playoffs last year - the reason we just missed after playing really good hockey down the stretch - is we dug ourselves a hole by having a bad month.

"When you have a bad stretch of games where you dig yourself into a hole in the first half or first quarter of the season, it's too hard now with the way the schedule is and with the three-point games, to make up those lost points. It's very tough to make up points after Christmas because it seems every team you are chasing is always winning or at least getting a point. That's the way it is now. We have to be consistent right from the start. We can't have any swings where we're good for two weeks and then bad for two weeks. You've got to be as consistent as you can and then we'll be fine."

Coming up, a look at the teams that crapped the bed in the first two months of last season and that are looking to get off the blocks without falling on their faces this season.

Courtesy of the indispensible ShrpSports — why isn't it in your bookmarks again? —¬† here's a look at how the NHL standings looked on Nov. 1, 2010:

How the first two months can royally screw your NHL season

And here's how they looked on Dec. 1, 2010:

How the first two months can royally screw your NHL season

In the Eastern Conference, seven of the eight teams in playoff seeds on Dec. 1 were still in them at the end of the regular season, with the Buffalo Sabres eventually supplanting the Atlanta Thrashers who were relegated to Winnipeg as punishment for their ineptitude.

The Western Conference was a little more unpredictable: Five of the eight went on to make the playoffs, with the Dallas Stars in the mix until the last game of the season. (In fairness, they would have leapt over Chicago, so it would have been a push anyway.) The Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings were all stalking the field, no more than two points out of the No. 8 seed. The three teams behind them didn't make the cut.

Going back another year, here are the NHL standings on Nov. 1, 2009:

How the first two months can royally screw your NHL season

And here are the NHL standings on Dec. 1, 2009:

How the first two months can royally screw your NHL season

Again, six of the eight teams in the East that held playoff seeds after two months still held them when the playoffs began in April 2010. Over in the West, six of the eight teams in playoff seeds on Dec. 1 also ended up making the cut, with Colorado's fast start eventually leading to the No. 8 seed.

Going back to Phaneuf's thesis — and this is, by the way, the first time "Phaneuf" and "thesis" have ever co-existed in the same thought — he said:

"It's too hard now with the way the schedule is and with the three-point games, to make up those lost points."

Conversely, if your team gets out to a blazing start in the first two months, it's probably not going to tumble too far down the standings by the end of the season.

Of course, points are all worth the same. Just like a goal scored in October counts just as much as one scored in April, two points on Opening Night have the same value as two on Fan Appreciation Night.

The difference is psychological. Corey Perry(notes) won the Hart Trophy because of his efforts down the stretch for the Anaheim Ducks, which seemed more "valuable" than Daniel Sedin's(notes) season-long effort because the Ducks were ascending in the standings. The Toronto Maple Leafs and New Jersey Devils were both scaling Everest trying to get back into the playoff race, and getting mentally exhausted as they saw the deficit closing too slowly.

Two teams for 2011-12 we're interested in regarding their start: The New York Islanders and the Winnipeg Jets. If they can get out to an above .500 start and remain there through the first two months, they could be spoilers. The Thrashers were notoriously fast starters; the Jets become an interesting case because early momentum could carry through the season thanks to the unparallelled enthusiasm from the fan base.

The "fast start" is a hockey cliché, but clearly it could make or break your season; or on the case of John MacLean, quickly and mercifully put you out of a job.

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