Clinching playoff berths was never a big deal to the Devils (or their fans) of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the standard of excellence had become such that the season usually started in April for all intents and purposes. Since 2012 however, there’s only been one playoff appearance for the Devils – the 2017-18 blip on the radar, which was immediately followed by another four seasons of going backwards into rebuild 2.0. Even early this season it seemed like we were in for more of the same…of all people, it was Lindy Ruff who reminded me of the ugly 0-2 start at his presser last night, which now seems like a distant memory.
It’s a measure of how fast the standard has risen back here that last night wasn’t even an occasion for me to revel in, especially since there’ve been plenty of those already this season as our rise back to prominence has skyrocketed. The thirteen-game winning streak, the home OT comeback against the Rangers which ended our late fall and early winter swoon and the Carolina win two weeks ago that briefly tied us for the division lead, just to name a few. This whole season hasn’t just had ‘first in a decade’ moments, it’s been first in multiple decade moments, or even franchise history both from team and individual standpoints. Another one of the latter took place last night when Dougie Hamilton’s tie-breaking goal in the third period gave him the franchise record for goals by a defenseman in a season.
We all know what lies ahead in April, or at least the first step of it seems obvious at this point after two subpar weeks losing five of six before last night’s game (albeit two of them were shootout losses) put us back behind the Canes by two points with them having two games in hand. I still don’t remember how to describe games in hand from the other side of it – games out of hand? Maybe I’ll just go with that…we have two games out of hand with the Canes. Anyway, assuming they play to their winning percentage with the games in hand we’d be more like five points back than two with nine games left before our next postseason journey begins – hopefully one of many more over the next decade! Today isn’t the day to harp on the fact that it’s looking far more likely to be a first-round series against the Rangers than it did two weeks ago when we caught the Canes, there’ll be plenty of time to hype that series up, assuming it comes to pass.
Ironically, it was the rival Rangers who officially put the x next to our name by beating the Panthers, with their game concluding around the time of our first intermission last night. So last night wasn’t exactly the same type of adrenaline rush that the 2018 clincher was, in the next to last game of the season when we just got over the line after a March surge kept us barely in front of a streaking Panthers team. That team needed a win to clinch, we celebrated our clinch with a win. Even the players themselves were (hearteningly?) subdued after last night’s clinch. Last night, and the playoff celebration is more about the fans right now than the team. Amazingly enough only four players on this team were even here in 2018, and none of them were here throughout all of the losing the way the fans have been.
In addition, Nico and Bratt were just rookies that year. Severson and Wood are really the only Devil players you could characterize as ‘long-suffering’, and even Wood only had one full season in the league before 2017-18. Clearly though, they all (and everyone else on the roster) deserve a pat on the back and more for turning the mentality of the franchise and the fanbase around in just one season, after some very long years where you couldn’t even see a light at the end of the tunnel. Especially when they all bore the brunt of the negativity early on, as the fans’ frustrations with the last decade all but boiled over.
This whole season after the first two games has had a bit of a surreal feeling to it, a ‘holy **** did we just do that?!’ vibe towards games, milestones and records. Even something trivial like being the second fastest team in franchise history to reach 100 points in a season (last night clinched that, too) makes you appreciate just how surreal this season has been. Obviously, we have shootout points and 3-on-3 OT’s to pad the point total but still, 19 regulation losses in 73 games is impressive – no matter what metric you’re using for the wins and OTL points.
I wouldn’t call last night a celebration for me as much as a time of reflection on the season itself, hence why I’m not even going to recap last week’s games. I wasn’t even at the Rock last night, though I probably would have gone if it was a true win and in situation. Possibly clinching in the first intermission (like we did last night) just didn’t have the same ring to it as the 2018 clincher did, although at least the Devils capped it off the right way.
It would have been even more of an odd emotional feeling if they’d lost after the clinch. What came to mind was more the call of whoever the Met announcer was in 1986 – Steve Zabrisky I think? – who stated ‘the inevitable has finally become a reality’ in regard to the Mets clinching a division they eventually won by 21.5 games. Clinching has felt inevitable for at least two months, since the Devils shook off their December doldrums. Not any less meaningful, to be sure but as the coach himself said last night, the job is far from done.
Today isn’t the day for Devils fans to sweat the what ifs of what’s ahead. If that inevitable becomes a reality (i.e. the Devil-Ranger showdown seemingly on the cards for months), the stakes will be as high as possible for a first-round series on both sides. Maybe it’s just as well we’re enduring a chill March now if Armageddon is almost upon us. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be nice if the team starts to play better before that point. They didn’t exactly go into the clinch on a high this week, with an even game against a surprisingly tough Wild team ending in a shootout loss on Tuesday followed by an early blistering in Buffalo on Friday when Akira Schmid gave up three goals in the first eleven minutes, leading to Vitek Vanecek playing the bulk of that game. Using both goalies gave the Devils an excuse to draw Mackenzie Blackwood back in last night after his latest stint on the injured list. At least Vanecek has played better in his last few appearances, starting with the game in Tampa last Sunday.
I can’t even worry about the minutiae of how they work out the goalie rotation over the last nine games, not to mention the lineup decisions including an odd decision to go with eleven forwards last night because the coach felt – probably correctly – they needed Brendan Smith against a team capable of physical play (and if you have a Thachuk you’re capable of dirty play, as well). To nobody’s surprise it was Brady Thachuk who took a run at Yegor Sharangovich, earning a response from Miles Wood. To everyone’s surprise – or not, if you know NHL officiating – Wood somehow got the instigator penalty despite the fact Thachuk had his gloves off even a fraction before Wood did and clearly knew it was coming. Apparently, the refs ruled that since Wood made a beeline for the player coming off the bench that was enough to justify an instigator, oh brother.
For some reason, all the YouTube videos of the fight are ‘age-restricted’ lol so I’m just posting the coach’s quote on the fight in this space instead:
Fortunately, that myopic decision to tag Wood with an instigator didn’t really cost us last night. Neither did Blackwood’s – ahem – rust which turned a 3-1 game into a 3-3 struggle before Dougie’s goal and Tomas Tatar’s empty-netter sealed it in the third, giving the Devils and fans a deserved capper on the clinch. We didn’t even get to 100 points in 2017-18 though we were just shy, and this year’s team got there with nine games to spare. There’s still a chance for some franchise records, including a realistic shot at the all-time record for points in a season (both team and individual).
From a team standpoint, six wins or twelve points in their last nine games would be enough to pass the 2000-01 Devils for the all-time high. In the individual points chase, Jack Hughes scored his 40th goal last night and has 86 points with nine games left, ten shy of Patrik Elias’s 96, as well as eight shy of Brian Gionta’s goals record. Clearly the points record is more realistic at this point, but you never know if Jack goes on another heater. Hamilton set the franchise record for goals by a defenseman, and still has an outside shot at Scott Stevens’ record for points in a season, needing ten over his last nine games to tie and eleven to break it. Our road dominance has led to all kinds of firsts and records there from a team standpoint.
There’ll be plenty of time and reflection to celebrate those accomplishments that do happen or have already happened, clearly as the coach and players know the season now is about what happens in April. As I said above, last night was more about a celebration for us than them. At least they responded to the energy in the building with a big final two periods last night after the clinch was official. Now, the next three weeks are about fine-tuning for the playoffs, managing workloads and keeping guys sharp. I’d say the division is a secondary concern at this point, especially likely being further back than the two-point deficit suggests.
Not to mention even if we somehow surge to the top (which would deserve its own celebration), it will just get us a playoff series with a hot Florida team who played well against us this year, or a pesky Isles team who can drag any series through the mud. Forget picking your matchups, just be in the best position to win by then. Arguably this week is one more ‘playoff rehearsal’ going up against the Isles tomorrow and the Rangers at the Rock on Thursday. With the Isles needing the game for their playoff push and the Rangers looking to jockey for home-ice in the first round, there’ll still be emotion in those two games clearly.
After that, there’s the danger for a potential lull down the stretch – especially in the final four games. Following our Battle of the Hudson week, we play a Bedard contender in Chicago on Saturday, followed by two more games against playoff bubble teams at Winnipeg next Sunday, then the Penguins the following Tuesday which should keep us on our toes. In the last week of the regular season we play Columbus at home followed by a trip to Boston who will likely just be fine-tuning for the playoffs by then having long since clinched the top seed, then the home finale against the Sabres before a road tilt at Washington, both of whom should be out of the playoff mix by then.
With only one more back-to-back, at least schedule compression won’t be the issue it arguably was the last couple of weeks, although it’ll make it more interesting to see how the goalie games get split up with Blackwood nominally healthy at the moment. It’ll also be interesting to see just how much emphasis they put on the chase for individual records and marks, especially if the division is out of play by the last week. We’re not used to having both in the same season, hah – usually either it’s one or the other at best.
Not even sure how to end this other than buckle up for the next ride, Devils fans!
Congrats on making the playoffs! Like you said, it was gonna happen. Oddly enough, my friend guaranteed it very early on. He knew. Lol, it’s great for hockey in the area. Hughes up to 40 goals. Awesome.
It it happens, it’ll be exciting to see the Rangers play the Devils in the first round. There’ll be a lot of pressure on our side. They are rounding into form.
Had Hughes not gotten hurt, he gets 50 goals and 100 points. Even though he didn’t miss many games, the injury affected him.