A day after the Devils finally broke their six-year postseason drought I’m still an odd combination of excited and relieved. Excited for both the journey ahead and enjoying the one just completed (well technically it’ll be completed after game #82 tomorrow but you know what I mean), and relieved in that it literally took a 10-2-1 surge down the stretch against tough competition to sew up a berth. Even having 95 points going into last night wasn’t enough – and wouldn’t have been enough with the Panthers winning yet again – the Devils needed one final victory last night against the Maple Leafs to seal the deal and got it in their usual nail-biting style. Older Devil fans will say this stretch run was reminiscent of 1987-88 where the Devils ironically went 10-2-1 down the stretch only sewing up the franchise’s first playoff berth in overtime of game #82 when John MacLean beat the immortal Darren Pang with a rebound goal and started the franchise on a Cinderella spring that led them all the way to Game 7 of the Conference Finals.
It is scary how similar those two runs are if you look at it. In fact Tuesday night was the 30th anniversary of that MacLean goal which was a seminal moment in franchise history. Returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years was another seminal moment last night. If that Devils team had Sean Burke come in and do nothing but win down the stretch, this Devils team had Keith Kinkaid do the same. Fortunately this didn’t come down to overtime in game #82 but it might as well have with all the nail-biters during this run. If any one of them went the other way you’re talking about things coming down to the final weekend of the season. Of course it would have been very difficult needing to win at Washington (even a Caps team perhaps resting guys now that they’re locked into the #2 division winner spot) Saturday with the pressure on if this race ever had to get to that point.
I’m not going to get much into the nuts and bolts of last night – Derek did a little with his post and anyway, I need a break from dissecting games before next week. One thing I will say about the game itself is that in a season where much was made of Hart candidate Taylor Hall and goalie savior Kinkaid rescuing the team, it was ironic that last night’s clincher was decided by a grinder showing skill in Patrick Maroon and a couple of players who really hadn’t played well of late – goalscorers Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood. Zacha had a couple of brutal turnovers in the last two games, to the point where I wanted him shot to the moon after the first period last night when he pulled a gaffe even worse than his first-period turnover against the Rangers on Tuesday night, but unlike that gaffe which made a 3-0 game into a 3-1 game, Kinkaid was able to bail him out last night (as he did Sami Vatanen later when he committed his own horrendous turnover right in front of the net just after Zacha scored the tying goal), and Zacha rebounded in the second period to score a beauty of a goal over Frederik Andersen’s shoulder on the shortside. Just as importantly Zacha saved a sure goal in the third period with a great shoulder stop.
Wood had also been dissapointing as of late, particularly after his suspension a while back. Thankfully he did what he needed to late in the second period and got in front for a garbage goal after Maroon had a beautiful cycle along the boards. He kept the puck so long I was literally screaming ‘dish it off Maroon, you’re not a playmaker!’ Of course after the goal the fan sitting next to me kidded ‘you sure about that?’ Both goals came in the second period after a nervous first period where the Devils dominated early but didn’t get the benefit of the whistle, and went behind. Things looked bad after the first intermission, especially when the Panthers grabbed a 2-0 lead in yet another game they would eventually win. While there was obviously drama in the third period thankfully there was no angst as Kinkaid, Zacha and the rest kept the Leafs at bay and Mitch Marner’s tripping penalty in the final minute all but ended Toronto hopes of playing spoiler.
Another irony from last night’s game is that the Devils still have not clinched a playoff berth without Lou Lamoriello in the building. Of course they hadn’t earned a playoff berth without Lou being part of the organization before last night, but he was in the other GM’s suite for this game. Predictably the Leafs iced their full lineup, not wanting to make it easy for us. I wouldn’t have expected anything different. If clinching Tuesday would have been nice for the rivalry aspect against the Rangers, clinching last night is the first sign the Devils and their fans can finally put the past behind them. Not just the past of the previous five seasons of futility but the past glories from individuals that by and large are longer here. This new team and new generation of Devils needs to make its own mark and last night was the start of them doing just that.
Putting the past behind us is more than just about on-ice results, it’s about connecting with a new generation of fans, and connecting on a deeper level with the old generation. While Lou’s button-down ways and only giving out name, rank and serial number was best for the Devils teams of the 1990’s and 2000’s, this generation of fans demands more than just wins. They want to actually know and like the people wearing the jersey and working for the organization. It’s no longer the case where most people get their news on radio/TV and in the next day’s newspaper, now you have to hold people’s attention and get them engaged for more than just the two and a half hours on gamenight. While the team’s social media game had steadily improved since Lou left, it seems as if this season was the coming out party for that as well as the team. Between Kinkaid’s annual post-game emoji recaps, the locker room and other videos posted on Facebook/YouTube and the all-access podcast with Amanda Stein and Arda Ocal, all of it has gotten fans more engaged and given fans like me more stuff to soak in between now and the start of the playoffs.
You could tell the social media people wanted and needed this playoff run badly too, to help grow the brand and take advantage of this building excitement around the team. To the point where all their accounts (Twitter/Facebook/Instagram) changed from having a New Jersey Devils name to ‘x – New Jersey Devils’ with the x of course signifying clinching a playoff spot. I was almost tempted to get in the spirit and do it in the title of this post, but it looks a little off for the title of a blog. Heck, the team’s last episode of their ’82 Game Odyssey’ mini-series was posted today – somewhat coincidentally since it’d been posted days ago that it would be online Friday but perhaps fitting that it dropped the day after the team finally clinched a playoff berth…and was simply titled ‘Clinched’. To their credit, the players and staff have embraced this new normal and to the credit of both GM’s Lou and Ray Shero, there are a lot of likeable players and personalities in the locker room that can handle being social media celebrities.
Just on a micro level you could see the excitement build last night as the nervousness of the first period gave way to the anticipation of the final two once Zacha scored (then Kinkaid made that big save immediately afterward to stabilize things). For one of the few times I can remember, the fans stood for the final minute of the game and the roar at the end of the game combined with the emotion from the player celebration/salute of the fans before the fan appreciation jersey giveaways on the ice afterward was an atmosphere I can’t ever remember seeing for a regular season game. Of course it’s been rare that things have come down to the wire in a playoff chase. The aformentioned 1987-88 run was one of the few successful down to the wire chases in franchise history. Most of our fan appreciation days before this year were either meaningless since we were 20 points up on a playoff spot, or in more recent vintage meaningless at 20 points behind a playoff spot. So combining a return to the playoffs with a Fan Appreciation day that actually meant something was a sight to see.
Now that the Devils are in at last, the next concern is who and where we’re playing. Yes there’s still a chance we could host a first-round series which is hilarious but that’s extremely unlikely – requiring a Penguin regulation loss at home to the Sens, Columbus losing to a Nashville team that already clinched the President’s Trophy and us beating the Caps in the regular season finale tomorrow. Everyone has different opinions, to me the only team I really don’t want to play is actually Columbus (and after last night’s results that seems unlikely anyway). Not only do they seem to be a tougher matchup for us physically than most of the colossus teams, but I don’t want to be the team to lose the first playoff series in Blue Jackets history either.
Just bring on whatever other colossus the hockey gods dictate, let the odds be overwhelming against us and let’s get it on. Assuming the Penguins win their game against the Erik Karlsson-less Sens tonight I wouldn’t neccesarily want to go pedal to the metal just to dictate what road series we’re playing. Not that I really care about home ice either but I would expect more of a pushback from the team in DC tomorrow if home-ice was on the line. It’s been a long, grinding road and another one starts next week – it would be nice to get some rest for our key guys tomorrow and maybe play others like Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Hayes or Cory Schneider who haven’t been in the lineup much lately. Heck, I need a rest after being at three pressure-packed games in the last six nights (at least this personal five-game home winning streak beats my two months with one home win earlier this season though!). Of course coach John Hynes has pushed almost all the right buttons getting the team to this point so I’m sure he’ll do what’s best tomorrow evening.
I could write more, thank yous to the players and staff for getting this done in such a dramatic fashion, appreciations for anyone that’s helped get this done but right now I need rest and want to soak it in all the more before next Wednesday or Thursday. Till we have an opponent to preview, I’m peacing out for the moment from cloud nine.