Devils keep Rangers at arm’s length, turn up heat on the Canes

I admit it, when the Devils got drilled 5-1 by the Islanders on Monday and fell to three points back with two games out of hand I thought the division race was pretty much over, and Thursday’s showdown with the Rangers would only be about seeding for the first round (i.e. who hosts the still likely if not inevitable first-round showdown). Funny how a few days can change the equation though….Carolina getting pounded by Tampa and losing brutally at the end of regulation against Detroit earlier in the week, combined with our big win Thursday and workmanlike W in Chicago last night put us back in the mix – though Carolina stayed in front by a point after beating the Habs last night, and still have a game in hand.

Clearly we’re still in the rear in the division chase, and this week won’t be easy – starting with facing two teams playing for their playoff lives over the next three nights – at Winnipeg tonight, and back home against the Penguins on Tuesday. After another home game against a Bedard hopeful on Thursday (Columbus), we face the Bruins in Boston on Saturday, and they could well be playing to tie the all-time NHL record for wins in a season. At least our win Thursday helped open up what’s now a five-point gap on the Rangers, so if nothing else it seems like the playoffs will start in Newark in just over two weeks one way or the other.

Of course, it’s still at least 75% likely we play the Rangers – though the Canes’ schedule is interesting, with them playing a bunch of bubble teams still hoping for a miracle playoff run this week. Carolina starts with the Isles tonight and fading Ottawa at home on Tuesday, before a three-game road trip through Nashville, Buffalo and Ottawa. As we’ve found out lately, it’s hard to play teams who clearly have more motivation than you – our Panthers loss a couple weeks ago and Isles loss a few nights ago were our most desultory of the last few weeks, and not-so-coincidentally both are hanging onto a wild card spot by a thread. To be honest, as much as I want to avoid the nonsense surrounding a Ranger playoff series in the first round, playing either of those teams might prove to be a tougher draw on the ice.

Still, there’s six more games and two weeks to fine-tune for the playoffs before that point. Mercifully I didn’t see much of Monday’s game and wouldn’t want to recap that anyway, although it wasn’t quite as bad as the 5-1 score indicated since two empty-net goals late goosed the margin. It’s astonishing to realize that was only our third – and last – regular season matchup with the Isles, and our previous game against them was in early December – a bad 6-4 loss that was actually worse than the score and started our December swoon. Our first game against them was way back in early October (a dominant 4-1 Devils win), so there isn’t exactly much of a recent history to go on previewing a playoff series, but just the Lou Lamoriello factor and the fact they’re an area rival would render a potential series with them tricky.

The NHL in its infinite wisdom is trying to pump division rivalries in the playoffs with their forced bracket system, while doing anything but with their regular season schedule. One of the many things the NFL gets right is ending the season with division games in the final week of the season. Even when you don’t have both teams playing for a playoff spot it’ll likely be a tough game, a la Detroit playing spoiler to the Packers in the final week minutes after being eliminated themselves. How much fun could next Thursday be if instead of playing an out-of-it Caps team, we’re playing the Canes? Of course it’s also harder to guess division matchups that could matter in an eight-team division compared to the NFL’s four-team division setup.

And to be fair, it is possible Thursday could be for all the marbles regardless, since the Canes also have their last game of the regular season at Florida at the same time as our regular season finale in Washington. Scoreboard watching would be World Cup third game of a group type epic in that case. Still, the more likely scenario is that both teams have already been locked into their seed and rest players. I’m not even aware what the first tiebreaker is anymore, it used to be regulation wins – I think it got changed to regulation/OT wins, which would help us since a chunk of our wins (ten to be exact) came in the three-on-three extra frame. It’s been such a long time since tiebreakers mattered – five years ago to be exact, but I think the tiebreaker changed during that time. Every time I go to google NHL tiebreakers, it gives me stuff from 2009, or a few years ago – which doesn’t help.

I guess we’ll worry about that if we can stay with the Canes through next Tuesday. Or if the Rangers catch up to us. We know what the playoff matchup will be if we stay at the #2 or #3 seed, if we do win the division it’ll be whatever of the playoff bubble teams (Isles, Panthers or Penguins) finish the highest. So there’s a small chance Tuesday’s also a playoff preview, though right now Pittsburgh’s on the outside looking in at the other two.

That’s more looking ahead than I thought I’d do…as far as looking behind, the less said about Monday, the better. Clearly it was a little bit of a letdown for all involved after clinching a playoff spot Saturday and celebrating with a fun home win. Thursday, I was tempted to do my own recap of the Devils’ big win, but Derek’s recap on Thursday pretty well covered the nuts and bolts of it. Time seemingly stood still for me on the Ryan Graves goal-saving play with just under a minute to go, as I had a bird’s eye view of the whole play above the net in 120.

Admittedly, I was (and still am) ambivalent about home-ice in the first round, at least against the Rangers. We all know home-ice can be irrelevant after sixty minutes of that series, but whatever the case it’s always fun to beat them in an emotional game. Even knowing how I felt, I went on Thursday as much as anything to prepare myself for what was to come. Six or seven more games of this in April might drive me up the wall though haha. Carolina’s subsequent loss to Detroit with seconds remaining in regulation – which I found out about on my walk to the train station – actually attached more meaning to the Ranger win, as it was no longer just about home-ice in the first round.

Being back in the division race upped the urgency to avoid a letdown in Chicago last night. For the most part they didn’t, although while they vastly outplayed the Bedard contending-Blackhawks they still fell behind 2-1 in the second, and were in a 4-3 nailbiter late in the third until the latest installment of TIMO TIME happened:

The amusing part is I was watching the game on mute doing other things and I really thought it was Jack Hughes making that play. When I realized to my amusement it was Timo (a blur wearing 96 instead of 86) I was like oh boy, he’s fast and twitchy too. It should also be pointed out Timo had the game-winning goal in the big showdown on Thursday and generally threw his body around all over the place. Clearly, he rose to the challenge of a rivalry game he’d only seen from afar before that night. Maybe the numbers haven’t quite been Sharks-esque, but in general he’s been just as advertised the last few weeks.

Also deserving notice for the last couple of wins are Erik Haula (goals in each game, as his offense is finally coming back from the dead) and the aforementioned Graves, who made the game-saving play Thursday and had his own nice individual goal in yesterday’s game. Hughes’ surge toward the all-time team points record continued against the Blackhawks with two more last night, giving him 89 with six games to play – just seven back of Patrik Elias’s 96 in 2000-01. Reaching a more modest milestone on Thursday was Vitek Vanecek, who became the first Devil goaltender other than you know who to achieve thirty wins in a season. Clearly Lindy Ruff was happy with the win, cracking a joke about Vitek getting his own statue in front of the Prudential Center (just before the ten-minute mark of the clip):

At least last night the Devils showed enough maturity to not have a letdown after a big game the way they did after the Carolina showdown (4-1 loss to Tampa) and on Monday after clinching the playoffs. It does bode well for the playoffs that three of our best games in March came in the biggest ones – the Canes and Rangers home wins and beating Tampa on the road in our third game against them after losing three in a row that week, including twice to them at home. Of course playoff wins are still bigger and harder to come by than regular season ‘big wins’. The Devils are doing all you could ask of them to this point in getting ready for that moment at least.

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2 Responses to Devils keep Rangers at arm’s length, turn up heat on the Canes

  1. Derek Felix says:

    If it happens, it’ll be a great series. It would be exciting for the metro area. Of course, there’s this small part of me that would love to see the Rangers and Devils meet in the second round. That would be a dream scenario. One team advances to the Conference Finals. A shot at either the Bruins or in my opinion, the Leafs.

    But I also agree with you that the Islanders would be a pain in the ass. Their tight checking style can be frustrating. They aren’t a high scoring team. Rather a grinding one with a great goalie. Barzal just started skating. He could be the x-factor. Assuming he’s ready.

    I view both the Panthers and Penguins as flawed teams who struggle defensively. That puts more pressure on the goalies. Both are fragile. If Buffalo were a bit closer, I think they could leapfrog them.


  2. hasan4978 says:

    I think you’d have beat the Canes in the first round and we’d have to play you anyway if we had somehow caught them for the division and won the first round, but tonight pretty much ruled that scenario out again. So looks like the Devils-Rangers series is on, just a matter of where it’s starting.


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