Devils gain ground in tense week

Perhaps it’s best I missed Thursday’s OT loss against the Penguins – which thankfully will either be the last or next to last Thursday game I miss this year.  After all, Tuesday’s game with the Hurricanes had about two or three games’ worth of angst and a dramatic finish worthy of the playoff atmosphere it was in the building, and I probably still needed a slight blow from that and from other stupid drama in my life.  Certainly missing such a critical game wasn’t by choice though, not at this point in the season.  Of course I will be at the arena next Thursday if their home game with the Leafs means anything, which odds are it will cause with this roller-coaster season it only seems to make sense that it would come down to the wire.

Still there are signs the Devils are finally doing enough to crack the Panthers.  After Florida lost in Toronto on Wednesday just missing a comeback from spotting the Leafs three first-period goals, they suffered their second shock loss to Ottawa in the last month – this one in OT in the most unlikely fashion, on a penalty shot from Jean-Gabriel Pageau (a name I’m sure still makes Derek cringe) with less than twenty seconds remaining.  Florida’s OT loss to the Senators on Thursday was a net gain for us even though we both got the same result from the night, it knocked a critical game off the schedule.  Florida is three points back, still with a game in hand they’ll maintain until they finally make up their snowout at Boston the day after the regular season ends but the light at the end of the tunnel is slowly getting brighter.

Saturday could be the most important day remaining in the playoff race.  If the Devils beat a dysfunctional Islanders team at home and the Panthers lose a tough road game at Boston (who’s suddenly in the driver’s seat for the top spot in the East), the Devils will be five points up and have a decent shot to end this by Tuesday.   At this point I’ve pretty well memorized the remaining schedules of both the Devils and Panthers, who it’ll almost certainly come down with to a mano-a-mano showdown for the final wild card.  It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to catch the Flyers or Blue Jackets given both teams’ consistent winning of late – especially with both teams holding tiebreakers – and the Pens beating us in OT ended all talk of us somehow passing them.  Yes, the Panthers get the Bruins three times down the stretch but Saturday’s game could be the only one with anything on the line for Boston given the warp speed with which they’ve passed Tampa of late.  Of course we could also benefit from the Leafs and Capitals resting their players in the last two games of the season.

Both teams’ schedules are home-heavy in the final week with the Devils only going on the road for Montreal on Sunday and the Caps next Saturday sprinkled around our rivalry home games with the Isles tomorrow, the Rangers next Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday while the Panthers finally finish their seven road-game (out of eight) marathon over the last two weeks in Boston, then bunch up five games in the last week starting with a back-to-back against Carolina and Nashville – who will also have questionable motivation having locked up the top seed out West, followed by home games against the Bruins Thursday, the Sabres Saturday and finally a last trip to Boston on Sunday.  A realistic best-case scenario for the Devils is they win their next three while the Panthers lose in regulation to the Bruins and Predators, and this baby’s over on Tuesday night with a celebration at the Rock after Devils-Rangers.  But does anyone really believe it will be that easy?

It’s been six long years since the Devils’ last playoff game, the meltdown in LA to end our feel-good Stanley Cup Finals run in 2012.  Since then, the team’s had five years of losing games and losing players to home (including the Kovalchuk mess and the July 4 Parise downer) as well as everywhere else, a complete on and off-ice overhaul with new ownership and regime changes cleaning house of everything a generation of Devils fans knew including the departure of franchise legends Lou Lamoriello, Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Patrik Elias and a lot of uncertainty over what lay ahead.  Throughout the five years in the wilderness, the Devils only had two serious playoff runs and one of them more or less ended in late February once reality finally set in on an overachieving 2015-16 team in the first year of the new regime.  Our other playoff run was really the only semi-close down the stretch race this generation of Devil fans has known and of course it ended with our historic 0-13 futility in the shootout and a hideous late season home loss against the Flames where Karri Ramo did his best prime Mike Vernon impression.

Perhaps the lack of close races is why I and other fans are struggling to handle the tension of this late-season run.  In the glory days, playoff appearances were taken for granted with the team only missing the playoffs once in two decades from 1989 to 2010, and that was in the only other close playoff race I can remember when the Devils embarassingly missed the playoffs in 1996 as defending Cup champs on the last day of the season, the first team to do so since the Habs in the early ’70’s.  Usually the Devils either clinched a berth by March or in more recent years have been out of it by late February.  Florida’s late season surge has extended the Devils to the limit but to this point a young, hungry team has responded to the challenge down the stretch going 6-2-1 in their last nine games which included a West Coast swing, trips to division leaders Nashville and Vegas as well as home and road tilts with the defending Cup champs.  And oh yes playing Tampa on a back-to-back coming home from a long six-game trip.

Of course there was angst on Tuesday when the Devils gave a skittish effort against the Hurricanes and there were definitely moments where things looked dire, especially at the end of the first period when the Devils completely broke down over the latter half and gave up two goals to fall behind 2-1, and also early in the third period when the team came out flat again and watched (that is the right word) Carolina take another lead at 3-2.  I was beside myself thinking we would lose this game – and in regulation no less – against a non-playoff team, albeit one gamely trying for a last-ditch miracle run.  After Florida’s fattened up on a string of cream of the crap teams it would have been doubly devastating to lose Tuesday when the Devils finally got a non-playoff team after running their gauntlet.

But once again this team fought back from adversity, with Kyle Palmieri almost single-handedly saving the Devils season with goals in both the second and third period to tie the game, then making a diving save on an empty-net chance midway through the third period after a breakdown led to a two-on-one that elicited a collective gasp from the 15,521 in attendance.  After Palmieri saved the game on more than one occasion, grinder Stefan Noesen won it dramatically with less than ninety seconds remaining in regulation and despite more hair-raising moments with our empty-net defense (as usual) I got to celebrate a second straight home win in attendance for the first time since December.  It was actually the team’s first winning streak at home since early February, which has been another bone of contention with me.  As dominant as this team’s been on the road at times, they haven’t done enough fattening up at home to get distance in the playoff hunt.

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to sweep the Penguins outright but would have been content with a point out of Thursday’s game to at least keep a modest distance from the Panthers after their expected win.  However, the Panthers finally showed signs of tiring out both from their long trip and their long drive back into contention and rendered the night better than I could have hoped for.  Ironically enough, with my low speed Internet during the last few days of my billing period I wasn’t getting the scores updated as quickly as I liked so I relied on a friend to tell me the Panthers lost in OT.  I thought he meant the shootout since there was only about twenty seconds remaining in OT the last update I did get but only found out later about that dramatic ending, which made up for the other kind of dramatic ending at the Rock with Sidney Crosby finally giving the champs a win over us this season with an OT goal after an exciting back and forth game that went to OT at 3-3.

Still this team can’t rest now.  Everything that’s happened this season and the surge this team’s made the last couple weeks won’t mean very much if they crap out now with a favorable schedule to close out and make it a sixth straight excruciating season out of the postseason.  Yeah I know the cliches about there being no easy games and rivals will be out to play spoiler, but if you want to make the playoffs you’ll win at least three of the next four games against the Islanders, Montreal, the Rangers and a questionably motivated Leafs team.  Especially with Florida having its own batch of home games against non-playoff and unmotivated teams to finish up next week.  It’s all right there for them, destiny is back in their hands and they have an opportunity to drop the hammer over the next few days.

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