I admit that at least twice in the last couple of weeks I thought the division race for the Devils was basically over, both times when the Hurricanes got three points up with two games in hand – but they refuse to put the division away and we’re refusing to let it go without a fight. Of course, as we’ve had our problems playing against most of the bubble teams who need the games more than we do at this point in the season, the Canes have had those same issues losing in Nashville and Buffalo (yes they’re still on the fringe of alive at least), while we crushed our personal patsy in the Penguins on Tuesday and everyone’s patsy this year Columbus on Thursday, piling up thirteen goals in two dominant home wins.
Shockingly, we’re only one point back with three games left for each team now, and with a chance to go into first tonight – and on a nationally televised ABC game to boot. Just to amp up the hype machine even further, the Devils happen to be making their one trip of the season into Boston to face the President’s Cup winners, who are gunning for history…one win away from tying the all-time NHL record with 62 and six points in their last four games away from eclipsing the ’76-77 Canadiens with 132 points in a regular season.
For a game between two teams who’ve already clinched a playoff spot (and in the Bruins’ case the #1 overall seed obviously), there’s still more than enough on the line to pique the interest of the hockey world. If you’re a Devils fan, there’s also some record watching in the final three games of the regular season, since the Devils are just three points back of the 2000-01 Devils’ franchise high of 111 points. Individually, Jack Hughes’ four-point night against the hapless Blue Jackets on Thursday put him at 95 points for the season – just one behind Patrik Elias’s team record of 96 in 2000-01, and with a puncher’s chance to reach the century mark with three games left including tonight.
While David Krejci is not expected to play, it’s far from a load management lineup special in Boston, and they even have Taylor Hall coming back from his injury now that they banked $66,000 in cap space from putting Nick Foligno on IR, hah. I’m just glad we’re at a point where we can realistically contemplate our own cap shenanigans again when the time comes, and for one of the few times in the last decade I’m also not looking to get in my season recap as quickly as possible with little that I actually want to look back on. Now I get to hold that off until the end of the playoffs, whenever they come.
Also on the line for the Devils tonight is the potential clinching of home-ice for the first round at least, but it’ll probably take a regulation win in Boston to sew it up tonight, since the Rangers are likely to drill Columbus at home. If you were putting up FanDuel odds, they’d still be weighted heavily in favor of seeing Devils-Rangers at the Rock in a couple of weeks, but any kind of a win tonight would really make things interesting. Even a post-regulation loss would put us in a tie, but with the game still in hand until Monday the Canes would still have to drop another game next week in either case.
Here’s how the schedules stack up:
Devils – tonight at Boston, Tuesday home against Buffalo, Thursday at Washington
Hurricanes – Monday at Ottawa, Tuesday home against Detroit, Thursday at Florida
There’s a realistic scenario where we’re still within range next Thursday and Carolina has to play a team who may well need the game for their playoff lives, while we’re playing an eliminated Caps team anticipating their first early summer in a long tie. Of course, that’s still a few days and other results going our way away from happening.
I’m still in between wanting the division to stay away from Armageddon (not to mention have home ice in the first two rounds), and not really caring – especially given our 27-8-4 road record this year. Not to mention facing the Islanders or Panthers in the first round could easily become a nightmare series. Anything can happen in April, especially early in the playoffs. I’d admittedly be a little overconfident if we were playing the Penguins given our recent history against them, but even they are certainly capable of stepping it up with decorated players like Crosby, Malkin and Letang – just ask the Rangers, who needed a couple of slipups from an AHL goalie just to survive the first round last year.
Bottom line is winning is fun, and an unexpected division title would just put even more of a capper on a dream regular season. Now that it’s right there…but perhaps to a degree the level of importance you place on a regular season division title depends on your age bracket, at least for Devils fans. I’ve seen plenty of division titles followed by early playoff exits dating back to the late ’90’s, while my friend Rudy (who’s in his early 30’s) is a lot more fired up over the possibility of winning the division. It was he who gave me the Canes update earlier, as it didn’t occur to me to check, though I vaguely remembered they had the earlier game.
Considering our last division title was way back in 2010, do the math. If you’re a younger fan who hasn’t seen the majority of our divisions, this matters more to you. It would be a legitimate cause for celebration though, given the expectations weren’t anywhere near that high in October, and beating out a veteran team like the Canes who’ve had a fine season would be a serious pelt on the wall, playoffs or no playoffs. I suppose tonight will tell the story, any result in Boston keeps us alive. A regulation loss will leave us one point back with only two to play, compared to three with them. It would be a lot of fun either way if we were in range on Thursday, having both our games at the same time would lead to World Cup final group game type vibes.
Along with all the news on the ice, came news off the ice too – albeit expected since the Devils have telegraphed their intentions on Luke Hughes for months, if not from the moment he was drafted two years ago. Sure enough, after Michigan lost in the Frozen Four last Thursday, Luke signed his entry-level deal and immediately joined the team. Whether (and when) he plays this year is a little more up in the air, although if you take GM Tom Fitzgerald at face value, it sounds like he’s prioritizing rotating guys in and out in the last few games more than actually winning the division.
That interview was obviously done before Carolina’s regulation loss this afternoon though, maybe the equation changes if we win tonight? Guess there’s only one way to find that out…
Guess it’s all in play. Anything can happen.