It’s do or die time for the Albany Devils.
It’s that time of year when, the last two seasons, they have started digging a six-foot-deep hole they couldn’t climb out from.
The Devils are six points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 13 games left to play. Of those games, 10 are in Albany.
If there will be a playoff push, it will have to start this week with three home games, tonight against St. John’s, Friday against Hershey and Saturday against Portland, all at 7.
The Devils have to get back on track after losing their last five on the road, getting outscored, 20-7, during that stretch.
“Right now, I feel we got slaughtered pretty good this last weekend,” Albany captain Jay Leach said. “I don’t know if we’re exactly where we want to be, with regards to how we feel about our game. Do I have faith in our guys that we can turn it around? Yeah, I do.
“You can’t look at 13 games, you can’t look at anything other than the first five minutes of the game tomorrow and getting that feeling back of playing the way we need to play. If we can do that, then yeah, I have a great feeling about it. But I think a lot of things have to happen before we can start thinking about runs and all that kind of stuff. We have the players in there to get it to where we need to to make a run, but it all depends on what we do, starting tomorrow night at 7.”
Two seasons ago, the Devils closed their first season in Albany with a 7-10-0-2 record in March and April, 3-8-0-2 in their last 13 games. Last season, they were 5-13-1-2 in March and April, 4-13-1-2 in their last 20. They are 5-6-0-1 this March.
The remaining schedule pits the Devils against 11 opponents, with them playing both Binghamton and Rochester twice.
Against those 11 opponents, Albany is 22-12-1-10 this season, despite being outscored, 121-118.
One of those opponents, though, is Adirondack, which the Devils host to close the season. Albany is 8-2-0-1 against the Phantoms and have outscored them, 33-25, somewhat skewing the numbers against the remaining opponents.
“From a schedule standpoint, it’s in our favor,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. “We knew these past two weeks were going to be important. We didn’t want to be coming into this part of the schedule quite where we are, but [the schedule] is in our favor, and now we have to establish ourselves at home and play better than we have up to this point, not just these last five games, but really start to be homers.”
The Devils need to start being homers, because they have been fairly mediocre on their home ice.
In “home” games, which include four contests at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Albany is 29th of 30 teams in the AHL at 11-11-0-6 and has been edged, 81-80, on the scoreboard. Counting just the games in the Times Union Center, the Devils are 10-10-0-4 and are even on the scoreboard at 64-64.
They have a chance of making the playoffs, though, if they can get back to how they were playing before their latest swoon. The Devils were 7-1-1 in the nine games before their current losing streak.
To make that turnaround, they’ve got to get back to their forecheck.
“Number one is we need to take care of the puck, get it out of our zone and into their zone. If we do that, we really need to get on them with our forecheck,” Leach said. “That’s our bread and butter. That’s what gets us going. We haven’t really had any sustained forechecks over periods of time like we used to.
“I remember back a few weeks ago, us being in the offensive zone the whole time. Forechecking, forechecking, that gets them tired. That’s how you grind them down. The last five games, it really hasn’t been that way. It’s been a lot of us chasing because of lack of puck support and poor position with the puck. That’s going to get us tired, can’t get in on the forecheck, and it’s kind of a cyclical thing. For us, it’s get pucks in, get pucks out of our zone, then get on them. Get on our toes and really go after them.”
Injuries have drawn several young players like defensemen Harry Young and Stefan Stepanov into the mix, and Kowalsky said they need to step up, but the Devils need to get consistent play from their best players down the stretch.
“Our top guys have to be our top guys,” Kowalsky said. “They, consistently over the last five games, haven’t been. This is the time of year you should love to play and want to be the guy. From a coaching standpoint, whoever’s going, I’m going to try to get as much mileage out of them if the guys that are supposed to be aren’t.”
Defenseman Dan Kelly (lower body) and centerman Jacob Josefson (upper body) both skated Thursday, though not as part of the regular practice. Kowalsky said he hopes one or both may be available by next weekend.
There wasn’t much known about the timeline for left wing Mattias Tedenby, who has been skating practices with Albany after recovering from being cut on the face with a skate on Feb. 15. Kowalsky said, “I don’t know what the next step is. He looks good, he feels good, so we’ll see.”