It would've been easy to doubt the New Jersey Devils heading into the 2023 NHL playoffs.
The team's core was full of unproven postseason performers, its goaltending situation appeared adequate at best, and it did much of its best work early in 2022-23. In the last 30 days of the regular season, the Devils ranked 17th in the NHL in points (18).
New Jersey also drew a seasoned New York Rangers team that added big names like Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko during the season. Facing down 2021-22 Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin didn't seem like a recipe for success, either.
The Devils had already taken a step forward by putting together a strong regular season; there would've been no shame in bowing out early to a quality opponent. In the first two games against the Rangers, it looked like that's precisely what they were going to do.
New Jersey was beaten by a 5-1 score twice on home ice as New York's power play looked dominant and Shesterkin shut the door, conceding two goals on 52 shots. In the other crease, Vitek Vanecek looked totally out of his depth.
With the series heading back to New York, a sweep — or at least a gentleman's sweep — seemed to be a likely outcome.
Eight days later, the Devils are on the verge of their first playoff series victory since 2011-12, and they're showing why they could be poised for a deep run.
That starts in net with 22-year-old Akira Schmid.
The Swiss goaltender came into these playoffs with just 24 games of NHL experience and he's been nothing short of outstanding. He almost singlehandedly prevented New Jersey from going down 3-0 in Game 3 by saving 35 of 36 shots, holding the Rangers to a single goal on a night where their expected goal total was 4.0.
From there, the Devils have provided a reminder of what made them so good during the regular season by absolutely dominating the play at even strength.
New Jersey's ability to throttle the Rangers at even strength shouldn't come as a surprise. This team ranked in the top three in each of the categories in the chart above during the regular season.
The Devils always had all the necessary ingredients to succeed in the playoffs from star talent down the middle with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, to a legitimate No. 1 defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, to a pair of above-average special teams units.
While this roster is driven by youngsters new to playoff hockey, it is also infused with guys who've seen it all like Ondrej Palat, Eric Haula, Tomáš Tatar and in-season acquisition Timo Meier.
Schimid remains the biggest question mark, but it's hard to argue with what he's done in 21 appearances this season.
There's nothing about this team's available talent or statistical profile that indicated it couldn't be a Stanley Cup threat entering these playoffs. All the club was missing was a little proof of concept.
It still needs to finish off the Rangers to provide that, but if New Jersey survives its brutal start to the postseason this team will be more dangerous than it's given credit for.