Devils refuse to be snowed out of the playoff race

It’s the morning after Easter in April and there’s a snowstorm outside…one of these things isn’t like the others.  Shockingly I have a snow off day in the spring, so guess now’s as good a time as any to write about the Devils’ weekend sweep that put them just a couple of games away from the postseason for the first time in six years.  For most of March things looked sketchy at best, although the Devils never officially lost their grip on the final playoff spot – a combination of a six-game road trip and multiple games in hand for a hot Panthers team meant the Devils had to find another gear to get to the postseason.  Things really looked bad after a once-formidable nine-point lead with nineteen games left was drained to a one-point lead with nine games left (with two games in hand for the Panthers).

Although they’re not there yet, the Devils have certainly found that other gear, taking command down the stretch, going 8-2-1 in their last eleven including the aformentioned make-or-break six-game trip and many other tough games.  In fact over the previous ten days, the Devils have played six straight one-goal games.  Under immense pressure, the team went 5-0-1 in those nailbiters, with the only blemish being a Sidney Crosby OT goal on Thursday that spoiled our chance at a season sweep of the two-time Cup champs.  Still, this team deserves enormous credit for bending, but not breaking during most other games while finally the Panthers have started to sag a little going 2-3-1 over that stretch including three straight losses.  Florida’s latest lost to the Bruins on Saturday afternoon led to this cute (and timely) moment at night when a bunch of mascots were at the Rock for god only knows what reason:

Both the mascot’s sign on the jumbotron and the OOT score displaying Bruins 5, Panthers 1 got huge roars from the Saturday night sellout crowd there to see the Devils get another two points against the Islanders and get closer to their first postseason in six years.  Which they did, but as usual against that team it’s never easy.  Quickly, the Devils fell behind as Tanner Fritz scored just 75 seconds into the contest off a rebound.  That wake-up call sparked the Devils for the rest of the first period and beginning of the second as they scored three straight times – first off a rebound from Stefan Noesen several minutes later, then with two goals from should-be Hart candidate Taylor Hall in the first 9:08 of the second period.  Even with a 3-1 lead though, things weren’t safe just yet.  To play off a Stan Fischler saying of a three-goal lead being the worst lead in hockey, for this team it’s actually been a two-goal lead that’s the worst as we already found out in Brooklyn earlier this year, losing a 4-2 third period lead and a shootout to these same Islanders.

Speaking of Stan – and digressing for a little bit, he was honored at that game for his 86th birthday(!!!) and the fact he’s retiring after this season.  This both makes me happy for Stan and selfishly depresses me.  Though he’d been on Devil broadcasts less in recent years, he was still a big part of my youth between his serious chops as a hockey journalist and his goofball side that came out during Matt and the Maven intermissions with Matt Loughlin way back when SportsChannel and Metro TV were the home of the Devils.  Especially when Chuck the Duck dropped in, and Stanta Claus made his annual holiday appearances.

Stan always seemed to be omnipresent between being on TV, an author of many hockey books, and more recently with blogging and Twitter.  During the first period Stan got a well-deserved standing ovation from the home crowd when a small montage of his life and career was shown on the jumbotron, and I listened to him talking with Steve Cangialosi and Ken Daneyko on the broadcast on replay afterward for the rest of the first period.  As usual he was a hoot, and sharp over his recall of things that happened long ago.  This bears reposting, but BONY’s own Derek had many personal experiences with Stan and his own tribute to a true original.

Back to the Devils, they were up 3-1 in the second period on Saturday and for a brief moment I had hope that for once, just once they would be able to drop the hammer on the Isles and have a nice easy win.  Of course this team is allergic to ever making things easy, and got put back on the griddle when Anthony Beauvillier scored with just seconds left on a power play to cut the lead in half, and another late Islanders power play in the second period after a dumb holding penalty on Damon Severson (that could well have been the last straw before his benching yesterday) could have been disasterous.  Instead, it led to the turning point of the game when Mirco Mueller – only recently found after being on a milk carton for six weeks – sprang Blake Coleman for a huge shorthanded goal that restored the Devils’ two-goal lead and stole momentum back.

Although they once again had the dreaded two-goal lead, the Devils actually played well for most of the third period until a bad break on a Chris Wagner deflection pulled the Isles to within 4-3 with just over three and a half minutes remaining.  If a two-goal lead isn’t the most dangerous one for the Devils, it’s any lead with an empty-net situation but despite some more hair-raising attempts on their goal and annoying near misses on the Islander one, the Devils did manage to preserve their slender lead and two vital points with Hall’s two goals ensuring him the first star and even more MVP! chants after the game when interviewed on the ice by Deb Placey.

If Saturday was the main course in his late-season case for the Hart trophy, Sunday was a nice, delicious dessert for Hall as again the team struggled against a non-playoff contender (this time the Canadiens) and trailed 1-0 after 40 minutes in Montreal before super prodigy Nico Hischier took over early in the third period, scoring the tying goal going to the dirty area in front of the net on the very first shift of the period.  Hischier could easily have had a natural hat trick after hitting two posts later in the period, but ironically enough it was another center in Travis Zajac who would spring Hall for a decisive goal at a critical juncture.  Things looked bad again when two straight penalties including a too many men on the ice led to a three-on-five situation.  With Ben Lovejoy in the box on the second penalty, the iron three that was dispatched to kill off the 3-on-5 was Zajac, captain Andy Greene and…Mueller, who’s gone from outhouse to trusted defenseman in record time.  And if you look at the penalty kill Mueller did some nice subtle work, using good body position to shield off the screener in front and good stickwork to prevent the backdoor play.

A subtle move by coach John Hynes would soon pay huge dividends, for after killing off the first penalty it was Hall who came out of the box (chosen to serve the too many men penalty cause he doesn’t often play penalty kill).  As if scripted, Zajac was able to flip the puck right to Hall past center ice just as he was getting out of the box and Hall scored an electric breakaway goal to give the Devils a 2-1 lead, while still shorthanded.  If you want to get a case of goosebumps listen to the Steve Cangialosi call, or some of his others on big goals late in the season.  He wants the playoffs just as much as we do.  After killing off the rest of the penalty the Devils would hold on this time too, aided by a late Habs penalty that essentially killed off most of the final two minutes.  In a ‘normal’ (re: non-Vegas expansion on steroids) season Hynes would be a serious candidate for the Jack Adams trophy and moves like putting Hall in the box, restoring Mueller to the lineup on his off side or starting Keith Kinkaid on both ends of a back-to-back show why.

Credit should go to a lot of places for the Devils’ big-time run that has put them on the brink of finally getting back to the postseason starting with guys like Kinkaid, Hynes and Nico but clearly you could do worse than show highlights from these two games to make the case for Hall being not only the team’s MVP but a legitimate Hart candidate.  Honestly this weekend was the first time I actually believed there was a chance Hall could win this award now, as all along I figured he’d get overlooked being a Devil (plus not having the raw stats of some of the other forwards that are in the running for the award) and he hadn’t done as spectacularly on the West Coast swing that turned around our season but through the entire season he’s scored one big goal after another.  He hasn’t exactly piled up his points in 5-1 games.

Of course even Hall himself would say his Hart candidacy is secondary right now to the team’s march to the playoffs.  No longer do we need to parse schedules or games in hand, the math is simple with one week to go – just two wins out of three for the Devils and it won’t matter what the Panthers do in their final five games.  I refuse to talk about seeding implications until we clinch though plenty of those still exist.  All I care about is that our magic number is down to four, meaning either four points gained by us or lost by them clinches a playoff berth.  Dramatically, our next game is against the Rangers tomorrow night and with Florida playing both tonight and tomorrow night (home against Carolina and Nashville on a back-to-back) there’s every chance that tomorrow’s game could be a clincher for the Devils which would be a delicious irony.

After all, it was a late-season April game against the Rangers three years ago that represented the nadir of the Lou Lamoriello era as they used us for clown props while clinching the President’s Trophy, while their fans booed our players off the ice on Fan Appreciation Night.  It was more like Fan Depreciation Night as the team poster was an empty locker with an empty jersey, though somehow fitting in that it represented the empty future looming just months before Lou left the organization for good.  However, this team’s come a long way in its three years under Ray Shero, with only Greene and Zajac remaining from the team’s last playoff appearance in 2012.  Having our rebirth also be fully consummated over the Rangers as they’re now going through an uncertain future would be a complete 180 degree turn from three years ago.

Of course the storybook finish would be nice but clinching a berth (particularly at home) against any team would be sweet, especially in a season not neccesarily expected to be the one where the team would find its way out of the wilderness of the past few seasons.  It’s hard for even me not to have feelings of anticipation.  At this point it looks like when and how, not if the Devils clinch a spot but no corks will be popped or champagne drunk until that happens.

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