By show of hands, how many fans who root for the Devils had them making the playoffs? We know the experts didn’t. Myself included although I don’t get paid to cover the great sport of hockey. Nobody believed except my friend Robert. I thought they could be competitive but looked at the Metropolitan Division and had trouble ranking them in the top six.
Even with key newcomers Nico Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt, no one knew Taylor Hall would have a season for the ages. He had never before carried a team and cane off a disappointing first year in New Jersey. Few could have predicted the 52 points he’s totaled since the new calendar year that’s propelled him to the front of the Hart race. The numbers are astonishing. Prior to tonight’s nerve racking 2-1 home clincher over the relentless Maple Leafs, Hall had only not picked up a point in three games in 2018. Here is the full breakdown:
There’s no doubt he’s the biggest reason for the amazing turnaround that became official at The Rock. The Devils are back in the postseason for the first time since 2012. With a game left, Hall needs three points to tie Patrik Elias for the single season Devils scoring record of 96 points set in ’00-01. He should be the favorite for the Hart Trophy. If not, it should between him, Nathan MacKinnon and Anze Kopitar with all three meaning everything to their respective teams. That’s what most valuable player means. Not going with the leading point getter Connor McDavid when the Oilers are a joke. Even Nikita Kucherov has plenty of help in Tampa. Evgeni Malkin has the same with the two-time defending champs in Pittsburgh.
Make no mistake. If not for the brilliance of backup goalie Keith Kinkaid, the Devils aren’t here. They don’t make it. His run in net has been remarkable. As Hasan noted in a previous post, Kingkaid (my nickname) entered Thursday night with a 2.39 goals-against-average, .927 save percentage and a 15-3-1 record since Feb. 13 in a win against the Flyers.
In making 31 saves including some unreal stops in crunch time with his team hanging on against the scary Leafs offense, Kinkaid was again the difference. He wouldn’t allow Toronto to tie it. As the fans in Newark were on pins and needles, the undrafted goalie was front and center saving his team time and again. There were a couple of Leafs tries that looked like sure goals. But a sprawling Kinkaid made the clutch saves to loud cheers.
As much as it was about the team’s success, this was his moment to shine. Who would’ve thought the Devils would have 97 points and it wouldn’t be because of starter Cory Schneider? Another one of those hard to believe details in a special season. He deserves this. However it goes, the fun underdog story Kinkaid will be the starter when the NHL Playoffs get underway in less than a week.
Give coach John Hynes a lot of credit. He made a gutsy decision to go with Kinkaid down the stretch when it became apparent something wasn’t right with Schneider. He hasn’t won a game in 2018 since returning from a groin injury. Those can be tricky. I have to imagine he was rushed back. You see it all the time in sports. Guys coming back too soon. We’ll see what happens in the postseason.
Hynes has pushed the right buttons. He realized Kinkaid was playing better and gave the Devils the best chance to win. It worked. The only question is does Schneider get the final start Saturday night at Washington. They’re still playing for something. Currently tied in points (97) and ROW (39) with the Blue Jackets, they can earn home ice if they win their final game and get help from Nashville. If the Penguins lose tomorrow to Ottawa, they are within reach only a point up for second place.
So much still hasn’t been decided. Both the Devils and Blue Jackets are in. Columbus is third due to one more total win (45). They also took the season series. The Flyers need a point against the Rangers Saturday afternoon or any kind of Panthers loss the final two games. Florida can still catch them if the Rangers help them. They have to beat Buffalo at home and go into Boston Sunday night and win. That’s only if Philadelphia loses in regulation to the Rangers at home. A game of no consequence to New York other than lottery position. A loss is more important than a win. Watch them spoil it for the hated Flyers.
If you’re wondering about Kinkaid, this is what he’s meant to the Devils. With the exception of March 20 when he relieved Schneider in a blowout loss at San Jose which made things dicey, he’s started the last eight games going 7-0-1 with a 2.25 GAA and .931 save percentage. The kind of numbers Martin Brodeur could be proud of.
It’s pretty astonishing. Especially when you see that his overall statistics are 26 wins with a 2.77 GAA and .913 save percentage in 41 games. If you’ve followed him, you know better. No playoffs without Kingkaid.