If this Devils season has been a refreshing change from recent years of hopeless ineptitude and boring hockey, last night at the Rock was even a step above that – it was reminiscent of the glory days with a playoff atmosphere on the ice and in the stands. Arguably the Devils played their biggest game at the Prudential Center since the 2012 playoffs, and came up with their biggest win since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals – also against the Rangers. Of course, much has changed since May 25 almost six years ago…specifically 90% of the roster and 100% of management/ownership. Six years is a longer time in life than in hockey but with all the off-ice drama and angst it seems like it’s taken longer than six years to get back to the brink of the promised land of the postseason.
Amazingly enough, the only drama at the arena yesterday was focused on the out-of-town scoreboard where the Islanders bumped off the Flyers in a wild game that put the Devils ahead of Philly for the moment, while the Blue Jackets came from 4-1 back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and prevent us from passing them in the standings too. Of course the big game everyone was primarily focused on did not go our way as pro’s pro Roberto Luongo revived the Panthers’ season with a big-time 40+ save performance against the Predators and prevented a Devils clinch for at least two more nights. Thankfully, the Devils’ easy 5-2 win on Tuesday ensured that they no longer should need to concern themselves with the OOT board. One win of any kind in their last two games and the Devils are in the postseason at last, no questions asked.
If clinching yesterday against the Rangers after the nadir of Fan Depreciation Day against them three years ago would have been a sweet 180 degree turn of fortune, clinching tomorrow against Lou Lamoriello’s Leafs would be the height of irony. Predictably, the Leafs plan to run out their first-string lineup tomorrow despite the fact the game means zero to them in the standings, being locked into the #3 seed in the Atlantic and a road matchup with either Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round. As much as I hoped maybe the Leafs would rest a few guys, deep down I knew Lou and team president Brendan Shanahan didn’t exactly want to make it easy for us. Say what you want about Lou’s departure from the Devils three years ago but he was basically fired, and in some ways probably feels like he got the last laugh landing in Toronto and making the playoffs for a second straight year with a young, up-and-coming team while the Devils are still – for the moment – on the outside looking in of the postseason.
Still you could sense at least the beginnings of a change at the Rock last night. Not a change back into being relevant – that’s already happened, but rather a realization that maybe, just maybe this year is only the start of something special building and not just some fluke one-off year or even an elaborate setup for a dramatic last-minute rug pull out from under us (like say, the 2016 Jets who won a string of wild games down the stretch in the most un-Jet like clutch fashion only to come a cropper in the season finale once again). Sure part of me’s still paranoid over that worst-case scenario especially the longer the Panthers refuse to die, but really last night the Devils looked like a team that wasn’t going to be denied. And more strikingly, Taylor Hall looked like he wasn’t going to be denied a chance to finally shine in the postseason. His already strong Hart credentials seemingly get better by the game with his best performance as a Devil last night, electrifying the crowd with two goals and two assists including a sensational penalty shot that salted the game away at 5-1 late in the second period and blew the roof off the Rock with more, and louder MVP chants than before.
There’s nothing left to say about Hall that hasn’t already been said. Sure, there are other strong candidates for the Hart but if the voters don’t recognize his impact on this Devils team it’ll go down in team history alongside Scott Stevens being denied the ’93-94 Norris trophy despite an eye-popping season of 78 points and a +53 and Martin Brodeur being stiffed out of the 2003 Conn Smythe trophy as just another memorable individual award diss of a Devil by a biased hockey establishment. Guess that would also be a reminder of the glory days too. Despite missing five games, Hall has a very real chance now to set a Devils team record for points in a season, sitting at 93 just three points behind Patrik Elias’s outstanding 2000-01 season total of 96.
Despite Hall’s virtuouso performance, credit needs to go to a lot of different places assuming the Devils finish this 2017-18 regular season off the way it needs to be finished off. Around the NHL, Nico Hischier is starting to get more attention for his stellar rookie season with 51 points and his two-way game, with coach John Hynes offering high praise saying his defensive play was as good as Travis Zajac’s. If it wasn’t for the sensational Matt Barzal (who’s in his second post-draft year unlike Nico), the precocious Devil would be a front-runner for the Calder. Drafting in under the steady Nico and the fast-starting Jesper Bratt, defenseman Will Butcher has been underrated for most of the season but having 44 points as a rookie defenseman in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at either and his two goals last night was a welcome sight. Nor has he been the anticipated trainwreck defensively that guys who’ve had more experience than him have been at times (coughSeversonMoorecough).
I could go on and on about other guys like Kyle Palmieri – who clearly saved the season with his own virtuoso game last Tuesday, and also went full warrior mode by getting his own flight to Montreal for the game on Sunday after sustaining a scary cut just below his eye, refusing to miss a game even after the team initially left him back in Newark. If you want to talk about veteran leadership there’s Brian Boyle and Ben Lovejoy, among others. Sami Vatanen’s been a revelation as a first-pairing defenseman since being traded here from Anaheim, Mirco Mueller’s had a career revival since getting back into the lineup. Others like Blake Coleman, Brian Gibbons and Stefan Noesen have provided grit and a surprising amount of scoring from the back lines. You could say the same about Miles Wood too except that his game’s fallen off a bit since his suspension and last night both he and Pavel Zacha had scary bad turnovers that led to the only Ranger goals of the night. Clearly guys like Zajac and captain Andy Greene deserve credit for being the lone stablizing forces in these last few years of tumult. Even a guy like Patrick Maroon’s chipped in since his deadline-day trade from Edmonton.
Among the non-Hall players though, one has stood out the last two months – a most unlikely hero in goalie Keith Kinkaid. His contribution can’t be overstated, especially coming as it has after the complete implosion of starting goalie Cory Schneider, and with Kinkaid getting off to his own scary bad start to the season. Despite getting some fortunate wins Kinkaid really wasn’t playing all that well till early February. Since then however, he’s been a new and improved goaltender – giving us the stabilazation in net we were supposed to have gotten from Cory and saving a season that could well have tettered on the brink of collapse even with Hall and company. His numbers over the last two months in crunchtime are astonishing for anyone much less an undrafted career backup:
Kinkaid since February 3: 15-3-1 2.39 GAA .927 Spct
Consider that the Devils have a five-point lead on a playoff spot as of now…Kinkaid even going a decent 12-6-1 would have put us in an extremely precarious spot leaving us a point behind with one less game to play than the Panthers. While Cory’s lost every game in 2018, Keith’s picked up the slack by winning darn near every game and has provided one of the most unlikely late-season goalie success stories this side of the Hamburglar’s run in Ottawa a couple seasons ago. Unlike Andrew Hammond though, Kinkaid at least had somewhat established himself as a run of the mill backup before suddenly turning into Patrik Roy, Dominik Hasek and Brodeur all into one for a magical two-month stretch. Still, given Kinkaid’s unsightly splits for the first three months of the season nobody could say they saw this coming.
There’s no more question over who the starting goalie for the rest of the season is or should be. Keith’s earned the net. Questions over what happens next year after the dust settles and you still have Cory inked to four more years at $6 million per are left for another day. Right now we can just be thankful we have Keith, Hall, Nico and everyone else that’s made the first 80 games of 2017-18 a special ride. But for its place to be cemented in Devil history as one of the most fun and meaningful regular seasons ever, the team needs to finish it off – preferably Thursday at home in front of another sellout crowd who’ll be amped to see a potential playoff clincher. Clearly 2018 isn’t 2008 where playoff clinchers were met with a collective yawn and hibernation till April.
Perhaps the only regular seasons more meaningful than this one – should it finish in a playoff berth – in Devils history are 1987-88 (the Cinderella run to respectability) and 1993-94 (the beginnings of a dominant team). As a fan and season ticket holder, 2008-09 was also a lot of fun with the unexpected success of AHL goaltender Scott Clemmensen keeping the team afloat and thriving while the previously indestructible Brodeur was on the shelf for four months. Not to mention Brodeur returning and setting the all-time record for wins on the same transcendent night Patrik Elias set the team record for points. In the end though, I don’t look on that season back nearly as fondly as I should, because of the ghastly playoff end that overshadowed it. Much like missing the postseason somehow would overshadow what’s been a fun – albeit at times exacerbating – regular season.
To truly make this a special season, this team needs to finish the job and drop the hammer. Don’t wait for the Panthers to lose…get it done yourselves tomorrow night on Fan Appreciation Day with a crowd ready to explode against a team that while talented still won’t have much to play for. GET IT DONE.