NHL Playoff Preview

It’s finally arrived. After a long 82 games, the best time of year is here. For six of the 16 participants, the NHL Playoffs gets going tonight. Sixteen teams can achieve their ultimate dream of winning the Stanley Cup. It’s time to break it all down.

The biggest theme entering this postseason is can the Penguins three-peat? Not even the legendary Oilers teams headlined by Gretzky and Messier did that. You have to go all the way back to the great Islanders dynasty when they won four in a row between 1980-83. So, what the Pens are trying to accomplish is special. As loaded as they are with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, it shouldn’t be easy. They’ll start the first round against the arch rival Flyers renewing the interstate Battle of Pennsylvania rivalry with Game 1 in the Steel city tonight. It says here that they’ll only go as far as Matt Murray takes them. Kris Letang should help.

CONTENDERS

The contenders to the throne are quite a few. In the East, you have the Lightning and Bruins as the strongest opposition with the Maple Leafs standing in Boston’s way in a compelling first round match-up that could have plenty of momentum swings. This is good news for the Pens because two of the three could be gone before the Conference Final.

The Bolts are hoping they can turn it on after a subpar finish. The top seed will face a scrappy Devils bunch led by Hart candidate Taylor Hall and Keith Kinkaid. They didn’t beat them in the regular season. How much impact if any will that have? Tampa needs its stars to lead the way. There is a lot of pressure on Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and young All-Star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to deliver along with key additions Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller (1 goal in 40 career playoff games).

The Bruins are formidable led by Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak which form the best line in hockey. They should be able to exploit the Leafs’ defense. But Toronto counters with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner on a dangerous offense that loves transition. Stylistically, Boston can control the tempo with their forecheck and try to wear down Toronto with David Krejci, David Backes, Ryan Donato. They boast Zdeno Chara and polished rookie Charlie McAvoy on the top pair and should have a edge in net with Tuukka Rask over Freddie Andersen.

The Caps also could be in the mix after wining the Metro Division. It all will depend on which goalie steps up. They’re starting Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby for Game 1 against the Blue Jackets who enter hot since adding Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole at the trade deadline. They’re no pushovers. Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson are playing well. The top tandem of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones could pose problems for the Caps despite the obvious talent in Rocket Richard winner Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. If he can finally play to form, Sergei Bobrovsky could punch the Jackets’ ticket to the second round for the franchise’s first series victory.

The Predators are the top dog until proven otherwise. Boasting great defense, balanced offense and a elite goalie in Pekka Rinne, they have home ice. A blueline highlighted by P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and oft overlooked Mattias Ekholm should give them a decided edge in any series defensively. Add to that a skilled and gritty mix up front led by Filip Forsberg, Victor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen and Craig Smith which can score dirty goals and you have a tough number one overall seed. Kyle Turris, Kevin Fiala, Nick Bonino lend support along with Mike Fisher and Calle Jarnkrok.

It’s too bad Winnipeg plays in the same division because they’re the second best team. Even if they advance over the pesky Wild led by Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Devan Dubnyk, they’ll likely have to face the Preds in a riveting second round. They played some great games during the season. Minnesota is without top D Ryan Suter which could hurt their chances against one of the league’s most dangerous scoring teams.

The Jets feature Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Nikolas Ehlers, Kyle Connor along with the lethal Dustin Byfuglien on a underrated back end that includes Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey. If American netminder Connor Hellebuyck plays like he did during the season in which he won a record breaking 44 games, they have the potential to make a run.

The Vegas Golden Knights had a amazing inaugural year winning the Pacific with 109 points. Led by Marc-Andre Fleury and amazing headliners William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, they play a very high tempo under Jack Adams certainty Gerard Gallant. He must love having ex-Panthers Marchessault and Smith, who they stole last expansion draft. Think Florida could’ve used either? They have the speed and tenacity that can work in the playoffs. It’s just whether or not guys like Erik Haula, David Perron and Karlsson will come back to earth. They haven’t all season. James Neal and Tomas Tatar could be important if they’re to advance over the difficult battle tested Kings. Fleury will have to be superb. Is a D that features Colin Miller, Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Vegas inspiration Deryk Engelland good enough to slow down Hart contender Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter?

UNDERDOGS

The Flyers had a very good season making it back to the playoffs. They didn’t finish far behind the rival Pens. But the question remains the same. Can questionable goaltending with this time it being Brian Elliott shutdown a scary Pens attack featuring Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Derick Brassard, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Letang and Justin Schultz? They can’t take bad penalties or get into a run and gun series.

Philly can score with Hart hopeful Claude Giroux on a excellent first line that includes Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny. They also have Jakub Voracek, young center Nolan Patrick, Michal Raffl and power forward Wayne Simmonds, who is a liability five-on-five but does his best work on the power play. Shayne Gostisbehere is lethal offensively and Ivan Provorov is the kind of two-way threat the Flyers haven’t had since Eric Desjardjns. They’ll need to be flawless to pull the upset.

The Devils are a feel good story having gotten back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. Led by Hall, smart two/way rookie Nico Hischier and the Jersey Rocket Kyle Palmieri, John Hynes’ club doesn’t back down from anyone. They play their game and can fluster opponents. Just ask their first round opponent Tampa, who lost all three games in the season series. If they can avoid the penalty box and play the Lightning at even strength, it’s not impossible for them to win. But this is a seven-game series. Kinkaid will have to be dynamic as he was the final two months against a potent attack that not only features Kucherov, Stamkos and Miller but 30-plus goalscorer Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and rookie Anthony Cirelli. Ryan McDonagh is back with Dan Girardi as part of the Tampa Blueshirts featuring Anton Stralman, Miller and Ryan Callahan.

For New Jersey to win, aside from remaining disciplined, they’ll need big contributions from checkers Travis Zajac, Brian Boyle, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen. Their goal along with Miles Wood and Patrick Maroon is to turn this series into a physical battle. Make it tough on the skilled Bolts. Michael Grabner must show up. He can be a game breaker due to his defensive acumen and speed at both five-on-five and on the penalty kill. There will be a lot of pressure on Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen who will draw the difficult assignment against the Lightning top line of Kucherov, Stamkos and Miller. Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller are key cogs along with vet Ben Lovejoy.

The Avalanche had a plus-47 improvement under second-year coach Jared Bednar. Nathan MacKinnon is why. The Hart contender was superb all year centering a lethal top line with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The lethal trio are amazing. Particularly on the rush and power play. MacKinnon will need to go berserk for Colorado to have any chance against Nashville. Rantanen is great at finishing plays around the net with his quick release. Landeskog can score the dirty goals and is back to being the player he was a few years ago.

It’ll be hard for them to win. Jonathan Bernier must play unreal with Semyon Varlamov out for the season. Tyson Barrie had a bounce back year on the back end. He and Samuel Girard will be huge with Erik Johnson uncertain. Nikita Zadorov showed improvement. Unless youngsters Alex Kerfoot, Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher are ready for prime time, the Avs can’t win. They’ll look to vets Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau for leadership.

It’s hard to label the Ducks, Sharks and Kings underdogs. But that’s exactly what they are entering the first round. We know this much. Either the Ducks or Sharks will advance to face the Kings/Knights winner for a shot at the Conference Final.

Picking between Anaheim and San Jose is like playing craps. The Ducks enter playing well earning home ice for this awesome Battle of California match-up. Featuring beast Ryan Getzlaf and top sniper Richard Rakell, the Ducks obviously need their best players to rise to the occasion. A year removed from a run to the Western Conference Final before falling to Nashville, they’ll have to do it without ace blue liner Cam Fowler. It’ll fall on Brandon Montour, Josh Manson, Hampus Lindholm and popular vet Francois Beauchemin to stifle a dangerous Sharks attack led by Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and great deadline pickup Evander Kane. Good luck. Even without Joe Thornton, the Sharks are formidable thanks to Kane, who’s been splendid. Youngsters Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier are key contributors along with Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney.

If there’s a big difference, it’s on the back end with San Jose featuring The Caveman, Brent Burns. He will bomb away from the point and can be a threat at even strength and the power play. Marc-Edouard Vlasic remains a solid shutdown D who will see a lot of Getzlaf, Rakell and likely Ondrej Kase, who’s developed into a good scorer. Neither defense is great. The Sharks rely on Brenden Dillon and Justin Braun to play big minutes.

It could come down to which goalie or goalies are better. While the Sharks boast Martin Jones who is the unquestioned starter two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final, Anaheim has both John Gibson and proven American veteran Ryan Miller. Depending on Gibson’s health, that’ll decide who plays. Gibson is young, talented and streaky. Miller has been splendid all year and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s in net.

The Kings are underdogs due to where they finished. But the West’s first wildcard has the match-up they want. Sure. The Golden Knights are very good and have a great home ice. But LA proved they can beat Vegas in the season series with two great comeback wins that saw Kopitar in full beast mode. He’s the best forward in the series with Carter right behind. The best defenseman is Drew Doughty, who pairs with Jake Muzzin to make a formidable tandem. Jonathan Quick is a two-time Stanley Cup champion and former Conn Smythe winner. There’s nothing separating him and Fleury, who’s won three Cups and was a huge part of last year’s repeat in Pittsburgh. He’s played phenomenally in his first year with Vegas and that must continue.

It depends on the style. The Kings want to slow down the Knights and turn it into a meat and potatoes series. That’s where a rejuvenated Dustin Brown and Tanner Pearson can do damage. They want Doughty and Muzzin to control the tempo and Kopitar to dominate all three zones. He really is one of the game’s best players and he could finally get that recognition.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

East

Round One

(A1) Lightning over (WC2) Devils in 6

(A2) Bruins over (A3) Maple Leafs in 7

(WC1) Blue Jackets over (M1) Capitals in 6

(M2) Penguins over (M3) Flyers in 6

West

Round One

(C1) Predators over (WC2) Avalanche in 5

(C2) Jets over (C3) Wild in 6

(WC1) Kings over (P1) Golden Knights in 6

(P2) Ducks over (P3) Sharks in 7

Round Two

East

(A2) Bruins over (A1) Lightning in 6

(M2) Penguins over (WC1) Blue Jackets in 6

West

(C1) Predators over (C2) Jets in 7

(WC1) Kings over (P2) Ducks in 6

Round Three

Bruins over Penguins in 5

Predators over Kings in 5

Stanley Cup Finals

Predators over Bruins in 7

Conn Smythe-Viktor Arvidsson

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Devils playoff preview

Sometimes just a picture says it all.  It’s been nearly six years since seeing a playoffs logo on Prudential Center ice, but here it is again in anticipation for the Devils’ home playoff games 3-4 next Monday and Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Newark should be rocking for the Devils’ long-awaited return to the postseason, especially considering how perilously close it came to not happening.  With Florida refusing to taper off and winning an unbelievable five games in seven days to end the season, the Devils’ margin of error wound up being zero.  As in just one more point lost or one more point gained by Florida earlier in the season would have meant we suffer the current fate of Panther fans and at least tie a dubious record for most points ever by a team that didn’t make the postseason.

Like Derek outlined in his previous post, the Panthers have nothing to be embarassed about.  Especially on the ice where their monster second half made at least half the Eastern Conference playoff field sweat bullets.  Although if I’m a Panther fan my biggest annoyance is still with the ghastly offseason trades of Johnathan Marchsseault and Reilly Smith to expansion Vegas and Jason Demers to Arizona more or less for salary relief.  Who knows what the Eastern Conference field would have looked like if their ownership didn’t do their best Rachel Phelps imitation in the offseason?  Marchsseault and Smith were certainly two big reasons why Vegas pulled off its shock top seed finish as an expansion team out West and might be the first expansion team to have a serious shot at making the Stanley Cup finals since the NHL’s dopey playoff format of the late ’60’s where an expansion team got an automatic bye into the finals playing the expansion bracket.

Still, despite excellent hockey all around from the Panthers behind them and the Blue Jackets and Flyers who eventually passed them, the Devils didn’t flinch – dominating down the stretch when it mattered most, going 10-3-1 in their do-or-die fourteen game stretch culminating in their playoff-clinching win in the penultimate game of the season Thursday night.  Perhaps that’s the most impressive thing about this young, upstart Devils team.  They’ve been playing playoff games for the better part of a month against tough competition.  If the favored Lightning have one main concern going into the series it should be that this team is more than battle-tested in its own right.

Granted, the Lightning are more experienced as a team in the postseason.  It’s not like the Devils don’t have postseason vets though.  There are more than you think on this roster, including almost all its top defensemen.  Obviously Andy Greene as one of the few holdovers from 2012 has a ton of playoff experience in New Jersey, but Sami Vatanen, John Moore and Ben Lovejoy also have played in multiple postseasons in other cities.  Part of GM Ray Shero’s rationale for his deadline deals to bring in Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon aside from bringing in their various skills, was to bring in another pair of forwards that have postseason experience.  Other than Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac (the only other player on the roster to have played in a postseason for the Devils) and heart-and-soul guy Brian Boyle, few of our other key forwards have postseason experience though.  A few guys that do include Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Hayes and Drew Stafford but all three are expected to start the postseason in the press box.

Sure, top forward Taylor Hall, prodigy Nico Hischier and starting goalie Keith Kinkaid are all going to be playing their first postseason game in Tampa on Thursday night.  And John Hynes will be coaching his first postseason game as well.  Experience doesn’t always win the day though, as the Lightning themselves well know when an upstart team in 2015 knocked off more seasoned playoff foes Detroit, Montreal and the Rangers on their way to the Finals where they gave the mighty Hawks a series before finally going down in six games.  Nor is experience going to help stop Tampa’s loaded attack, which contains no fewer than four forwards and one defenseman (Victor Hedman) who have 60+ points, spearheaded by Nikita Kucherov’s 100-point season.  That leads me to the perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams – Tampa’s nearly 50-goal edge in goalscoring.

OFFENSE

In fact, Tampa has scored the most goals in the league by a considerable margin with 290, outgunning its closest competitor (Winnipeg) by a full seventeen goals while the Devils finished middle of the pack with 243 goals.  Our forward depth is actually comparable to the Lightning’s with ten forwards that have scored at least a dozen goals, and twelve forwards with at least twenty points in what’s been a balanced attack outside of Hall.  However, there’s a big dropoff between Hall (93 points) and Hischier (52 points) in scoring while the Lightning have five twenty-goal scorers compared to just two for us.  Not to mention six fifty-point players compared to just two for us.  Tampa’s top two lines, and keeping them in check are paramount to closing the gap between the two teams and turning it into a hand-to-hand combat series where our role players can make a difference.

It’s not just the top two lines where the difference in scoring shows though, it’s also among the defensemen.  Their defense has not only outscored ours 48-31 but our leading goalscorer on the blueline (Damon Severson) is likely to start the postseason in the press box after repeated miscues down the stretch lost the trust of Hynes and the coaching staff.   Other than rookie Will Butcher, any offensive production we get from the D is a bonus at this point while Hedman and teen sensation Mikhail Sergachev have to be accounted for, as well as top forwards Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson and deadline acquisition J. T. Miller.  That task will fall to our unheralded but improving blueline

DEFENSE

Tampa has the bigger names in Hedman, Sergachev and the Derek All-Stars (re: ex-Rangers) in Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman and another big deadline acquisition in Ryan McDonagh but New Jersey’s blueline improved throughout the year and finished middle of the pack in both shots allowed per game and goals allowed.  Ultimately, the Lightning finished marginally ahead in goals allowed per game (2.85 to 2.93) and marginally behind in shots allowed per game (32.7 to 31.9).  In-season acquisition Vatanen was a big reason for the Devils D’s improvement as well as growth from Butcher and a surprising stretch run by Mueller, but they’ll clearly face a huge challenge trying to keep pace with Tampa’s attack.  Earlier in the season they struggled to do so despite winning two high-scoring games – 5-4 after a shootout in October at the Rock, and 4-3 in another high-scoring tilt in February at Tampa, but completed a surprising series sweep in March with a taut 2-1 win on the back end of a brutal home-and-home that proved decisive in the Devils’ postseason charge.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s a tale of two units for the Lightning, who dominate on the PP with a 23.5% efficiency (finishing third) but struggle on a PK that’s surprisingly poor at 76.1% – good for 28th among 31 teams.  For the Devils’ inconsistent but improving PP this could be an area to exploit.  For all my kvetching over assistant Geoff Ward and his deployment of personnel and tactics at times, the PP got more consistent throughout the season and finished in 10th place overall at 21.4% efficiency.  Of course like with most other things offensively, the PP ran through Hall who directly scored or assisted on 37 of the team’s 54 power play goals this season.  Our PK on the other hand was steady throughout the season finishing in 8th with an 81.8% efficiency, and became a threat – leading the league with twelve shorthanded goals.  New Jersey’s PK against Tampa’s PP could be the single most important micro matchup of the series other than top defensive pair Greene and Vatanen and checkers Zajac, Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen against the Lightning’s top unit five-on-five.  Of course as with any playoff series, the one-on-one matchup that will determine so much is:

GOALTENDING

Both goaltenders come into this series with huge question marks.  For Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, it’s whether he can regain his first-half form after a rocky finish to the season that had Vasilevskiy himself admitting he was tired in his first year playing more than 50 games, while for the Devils’ Keith Kinkaid it’s a question of how long can this career backup sustain a superstar level that led to his season-saving 16-3-1 run?  Will fatigue eventually kick in for a player that’s never played more than 47 games in a season at any level of pro hockey (and that was in 2013-14 at the AHL level, his last season getting a starter’s workload till now)?  Should the Devils play seven playoff games, Keith would surpass that plateau after having played 41 games in the regular season this year.  While Vasilevskiy’s overall numbers are still better (2.62 GAA .920 Save, 8 SHO) compared to Kinkaid’s, Kinkaid’s first few months are a distant memory now, since the Devils’ overnight sensation has played at an otherworldly level in the last two months as detailed in prior blogs by me and Derek.

COACHING

In his five full seasons as Lightning coach, Jon Cooper has won games at an astonishing rate with a record a full hundred games above .500, and a winning percentage of .617.  Although Tampa hasn’t gone all the way to the promised land yet, they came close in back-to-back seasons of 2014-15 (Finals loss to Chicago in 6 games) and 2015-16 (losing in Game 7 of the Conference Finals to Pittsburgh).  After missing the postseason last year, Tampa’s locked and loaded for another deep run into Spring, especially with their deadline acquisitions of McDonagh and Miller add to an already deep and experienced core.

On the other side, Devils coach John Hynes is in just his third season and will be coaching in the playoffs for the first time this week, but the likely Jack Adams finalist has done a good job in guiding a young team with few big names to a 97-point season and a hard-fought playoff berth.  Almost any other team would have been sunk if their franchise goalie (Cory Schneider) got hurt and then imploded throughout the second half of the season and certainly their six-game trip across America in March was a defining moment for both team and coach.  Through it all, Hynes struck the right balance between discipline and confidence-building and put everyone in positions to succeed from his younger players to his role players to Hall, who had a career-best season that put him in the discussion for the Hart trophy.

OUTLOOK

Let’s be honest, it’s hard for a fan to predict a series you have a vested interest in, so to speak.  As happy as I’d be with this season pretty much no matter the outcome, I’m hopeful this series at least gets back to the Rock for Game 6 two weeks from today.  Should that happen, let the chips fall where they may from there.  Though I normally roll my eyes at the just happy to be here cliche, how could you not be as a Devils fan?  They weren’t expected to make the playoffs this season but once they got out to a huge lead and held a spot from day one, it would have been a giant dissapointment to blow it and waste Hall’s transcendent season.  With the worst-case scenarios gone, the Devils can just focus on playing their best, being loose and carrying their confidence from the regular season sweep of the Lightning into this series.  Not that it will mean anything on the ice, but it can provide an intangible benefit for a young team that will help them not be intimidated by the moment.

My best-case outlook is a 4-2 series win clinching in front of an emotional sold-out crowd at the Rock in two weeks – although I almost see it as more likely to go up 3-2 and lose Game 6, only to win Game 7 on the road which would somehow be a fitting coda to a season that’s had many unforseen twists and turns.  My worst-case outlook is losing in five games, but I can’t see us going out that quietly even to a juggernaut like Tampa.  Ultimately I at least see something in between the two – a split of the first four games then it gets down to crunchtime and becomes a three game series with an interminable three-day break between Games 4 and 5.  Almost as interminable as the wait between last night and Thursday will be.  Aside from that midseries layoff, the teams will play every other day starting Thursday at 7 PM in Tampa.  Time to get ready for the next roller coaster ride.

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Panthers don’t roll over for Bruins, Devils vs Lightning set

Give the Panthers a lot of credit. They didn’t roll over for the Bruins. It might not have meant anything for Florida after having been eliminated from postseason contention by the Flyers on Saturday. But you wouldn’t have known it by the way they played.

If this were a different year, Panthers coach Bob Boughner would deserve the Jack Adams. He probably won’t even be nominated with Gerard Gallant, John Hynes and Dave Hakstol prime candidates along with Jared Bednar.

What the Panthers proved is that even though their final two games didn’t mean the playoffs, they didn’t care. They played the same way getting timely scoring and great goaltending from both James Reiner and proud veteran Roberto Luongo, who came in ice cold to stuff the Bruins’ chances of winning the Atlantic Division and clinching home ice in the Eastern Conference.

Florida went into Boston and defeated them 4-2 at TD Garden. A game that meant a lot more to the Bruins due to a big difference in first round opponents. Had they won in regulation, overtime or shootout, they would’ve passed the Lightning in total points and earned the number one seed which would’ve meant a match-up against final wildcard the Devils. Instead, they’ll have to deal with arch enemy Toronto in a very intriguing 2 vs 3 first round in the Atlantic semifinals. One which isn’t the easiest match-up against the high flying Maple Leafs.

Leading by a 3-1 score after outplaying a surprisingly flat Boston team, the Panthers were on their collective heels in a lopsided third period controlled by the more desperate Bruins. Boston outshot the Cats 26-6 as they gave every effort to get the game tied for a chance at first place.

A hi-sticking double minor that drew blood on captain Zdeno Chara allowed Boston to creep back within one thanks to some wonderful passing down low. Ryan Donato made a nice one touch pass to Patrice Bergeron, who swung the puck right to a open David Backes for a power play goal by Reimer with 10:06 remaining. It came on the first half meaning they still had another two minutes to work with.

During it, they continued to apply the pressure on Florida’s penalty killers and forced Reimer into some difficult stops. The Panthers backup was writhing in pain after two saves. Both which brought out the trainer to boos from classless fans who should’ve realized he wasn’t faking. The second save saw him bent over in obvious discomfort which NESN’s Jack Edwards noted to color analyst Andy Brickley that that was it for Reimer.

Having already stretched, Luongo came in relief giving a tap to Reimer with eight minutes left. It would’ve been easy for the 39-year old legend to spit the bit. But a couple of close calls from Boston near his post never got past him. He came up with a big pad save to deny a tying bid. Following the brilliance of Reimer stopping 33 of 35 shots including over half before giving way, Luongo was a perfect eight for eight in relief.

Evgenii Dadonov put it away when he got to a loose puck in front and swept home a backhand past Tuukka Rask for his 28th with 1:49 to go in regulation. A terrific read by a gifted scorer who had a very good year in his return to Florida after spending the past several seasons in the KHL. He really was tremendous during their playoff push and a big reason the Panthers didn’t wilt down the stretch.

Even without inspirational leading scorer Aleksander Barkov the final two games due to injury, the Panthers had enough heart to beat both the Sabres and much better Bruins to finish out the season winning their last five including twice over Boston and a impressive one goal win over Nashville.

The Panthers finished the 82-game schedule with 96 points in Boughner’s first year. In other seasons, that would be enough to make the playoffs. But a Flyers 5-0 laugher against the Rangers along with a Devils 5-2 laugher over the same Rangers allowed both I-95 rivals to make it. The Flyers earned third place in the Metro Division jumping over the Blue Jackets into a appetizing first round Battle of Pennsylvania against bitter nemesis the Penguins.

Meanwhile, Columbus will play Metro first seed Washington as a first wildcard. That means the Devils get who they wanted in the East’s top seeded Lightning. Even though Tampa had a conference best 113 points, they lost the season series to the Devils 3-0. What will it mean? If you’re NJDevs blogger Hasan, probably nothing. But you can’t deny that these determined and gritty Devils could have a mental edge entering the first round series which starts on Thursday.

New Jersey boasts Hart candidate Taylor Hall, who has been on a mission. He posted career bests in goals (39) and points (93) narrowly missing on Patrik Elias’ single season franchise record 96 points in ’00-01. Hall has formed unreal chemistry with superb rookie Nico Hischier and a sizzling Kyle Palmieri. The trio must be a big factor to pull the upset.

The Devils are looking for secondary scorers Miles Wood and Patrick Maroon to be royal pains in front of Lightning Vezina contender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He had a outstanding season and can make the great save that swings the momentum.

Keith Kinkaid has been on a special run the past two months making clutch stops when his team needs it most. He’ll have to duplicate it against the Lightning Bolts’ dangerous scorers Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and a loaded lineup that features Brayden Point, J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Norris favorite Victor Hedman.

It’s gonna take a Herculean effort from checkers Brian Boyle, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac and Michael Grabner. Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene have their work cut out for them along with Mirco Mueller and Will Butcher.

The Devils can frustrate opponents with their tenaciousness. They don’t back Diem which might explain their success against Tampa and Pittsburgh. But it’s one thing to do it in the regular season and quite another to accomplish it over a best-of-seven series.

Either way, in resting Hall and Kinkaid in a loss to the Caps, Hynes got the match-up he wanted. We’ll see what happens.

Along with the Bruins/Leafs, Pens/Flyers and Caps/Jackets, every series could go either way. It speaks to the parity. The bottom teams have a chance. It should be a exciting first round.

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Rangers Fire Vigneault

In a bit of a stunner considering there are games still going on, the Rangers didn’t wait around. Apparently, whatever went on in today’s awful display in a 5-0 loss to the Flyers and a bizarre press conference was enough.

In a move that came a day or two earlier than expected, the Rangers have fired Alain Vigneault. After five years behind the bench where the former Canucks bench boss had similar success that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and coming within a period of a second straight appearance, time has run out on the veteran coach. The Rangers made it official on Twitter a short while ago following the rumors from XM Sirius Radio via reliable source TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

So, the ax officially fell. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think they would do it tonight. It definitely came as a shock. Maybe Vigneault’s big defense during his postgame was enough for GM Jeff Gorton and even staunch supporter Team President Glen Sather to cut ties immediately.

Given how uncompetitive they were at the rival Devils on a playoff clincher and the same at the Flyers allowing them to easily clinch, something was wrong. There had been rumblings about player dissension recently. I had heard through a reliable source that players were disenchanted with Vigneault, who was a very successful coach.

However, in sports all good runs come to an end. As well as it started with the old core featuring Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard to name a few, had a remarkable run in the 2014 postseason. Rallying around Martin St. Louis following the tragic death of Mom France, they rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Penguins in the second round with Brad Richards getting the series clincher and Henrik Lundqvist turning into a brick wall.

That special run continued when they beat the Canadiens in six at a raucous Garden to advance to the first Stanley Cup Final since ’94. Following a gut wrenching loss to the Kings in a closely fought five game series with all three games in LA decided in overtime, they came back and won the President’s Trophy in ’14-15 for home ice throughout the entire playoffs. It looked like the end when the Caps had them down three games to one and leading by a goal with less than two minutes left in Game 5 of the second round. But Chris Kreider had other ideas taking a feed from Stepan and tying it. The building absolutely rocked when Stepan made a drop to McDonagh who beat Braden Holtby to save the season.

After hanging on for dear life against Alexander Ovechkin and Co. to win Game 6, they went to sudden death again in the final game. This time, the hero was Stepan off a face off play when he got to a Girardi rebound and sent the puck into a open side for a unbelievable seven game series win. But in a oddly played Conference Final in which the road team played better, the Rangers were shutout in both home games 5 and 7 in mystifying fashion to lose in crushing fashion to the Lightning, who had old faces Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle. In between, Brassard scored a hat trick and had six points. But the Rangers were outplayed and outcoached at home which didn’t sit well.

From there, the wheels started to come off. The wear and tear from the past 2015 playoffs which saw McDonagh play through a broken foot, Staal, Girardi and Keith Yandle also through injuries, started to show. Neither Girardi nor Staal were the same in a perplexing ’15-16 that saw Vigneault overuse both vets when they needed rest. He didn’t manage them well and both were battered in a first round loss to the Pens.

Lundqvist also suffered as time went on. The confusing defensive system which relied heavily on forwards rotating for D in front backfired. The Rangers went from a hard forechecking team who was hard to play against to a soft vanilla one cut out in Vigneault’s personality. This despite some puzzling lines and usage where at times he would play skilled young talented players like Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey with grinders. It made little sense. He also jerked around J.T. Miller, who eventually was mistakenly included with McDonagh in a selloff to Tampa Bay for prospects and draft picks along with disappointing Vladislav Namestnikov.

It didn’t have to be this way. What if the ’16-17 outfit hadn’t blown late leads in regulation and lost in crushing fashion to Ottawa? We’ll never know. Only that the ghost of Jean-Gabriel Pageau ended the run in a very disappointing second round loss to the Senators with Brassard on the winning side.

With the team going only as far as Lundqvist took it with his best play in five years during the first half, they recovered from a poor start to be in playoff position. But it all fell apart in the second half. It made MSG realize that the team wasn’t good enough. So they moved Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, McDonagh, Miller and Nick Holden for first round, second round picks and thirds along with prospects.

With a hands off coach who relied on vets to take control of the locker room, the writing was on the wall. It was painfully obvious Vigneault’s style didn’t fit the future plan. He did a good job with Kevin Hayes turning him into a better player as a match up center. He also found chemistry between Mika Zibanejad and Kreider. So it wasn’t all bad. He used Neal Pionk with Staal on a solid pair. But more often than not, he made baffling decisions that left fans and media confused.

His last defense was a plea that he and his staff should be back. It was desperate and probably was the final straw for Gorton.

Now, it’s time to see what they’ll do next. There will be a new coach for the first time in a while. Since the lockout, the franchise has had stability in Tom Renney, proven vets John Tortorella and Vigneault. Who ever takes over will be a different kind of coach. One who can work with young players and have patience for mistakes and not be so quick to bench them for shifts or shuffle the deck.

It says here Sheldon Keefe would be a good place to start the search. He’s had great success with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL and is the current Toronto Marlies coach since 2015.

We’ll see which path the Blueshirts go.

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This embarrassment worth firing Vigneault for

So supposedly, there was a hockey game played in Philadelphia this afternoon. Someone forgot to remind the Rangers. In the final game hopefully of the Alain Vigneault Era, they embarrassed themselves, the jersey and insulted fans with a despicable 5-0 blowout loss to the playoff bound Flyers.

On a emotional day with the hockey world mourning the loss of 15 people in the horrible Humboldt Broncos tragedy due to a accident with a truck in Saskatchewan last night, the Rangers mailed it in. With the Flyers paying tribute to the players and coaches who died during a emotional pregame ceremony, the 18 skaters couldn’t be bothered.

They made it easy for the Flyers, who took their early Christmas present by getting the first hat trick of MVP candidate Claude Giroux’s career. The Flyers captain added to his career high with goals 32, 33 and 34 in making a final statement to voters on a tight Hart race that’ll include the Devils’ Taylor Hall, the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and the Kings’ Anze Kopitar. That’s if they don’t look the other way and vote for Nikita Kucherov, Evgeni Malkin or certain Art Ross winner Connor McDavid. You never know what the PHWA is thinking.

Giroux is going to finish either second or third in points with his 102 a personal best along with the 34 goals and 68 assists. A year ago, no one could’ve predicted this for him or the Flyers. But shifting him to the wing so Sean Couturier could center the top line with Travis Konecny moved up around Christmas was a stroke of genius by coach Dave Hakstol. A certain Jack Adams candidate even though it’s Vegas coach Gerard Gallant’s to win.

If the Flyers proved anything, it’s that you can change the look of a roster by adding a talented second overall pick in Nolan Patrick while trading a very good player in Brayden Schenn to the Blues in a cost cutting move that netted extra first round pick Morgan Frost and center Jori Lehtera. It’s all panned out with the dominant top line along with Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Patrick along with dominant defensemen Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere leading the charge back to the postseason. Brian Elliott returned in the final game and only had to stop 17 measly Rangers shots for the easy shutout.

How bad was the nationally televised game? After two periods, it was 4-0 Flyers who led in shots 31-12. As uncompetitive as possible in the Rangers’ last game of a long season. The antithesis of what Henrik Lundqvist was hoping for. He wanted to finish with a win and make the Flyers sweat it out. At last check, the Panthers were up 3-0 on the Sabres. But it’s all meaningless now thanks to the Rangers’ pathetic effort.

Granted. The roster was half Wolf Pack with the ridiculous recalls of Matt Beleskey and Steven Fogarty. What the heck for? Why not Boo Nieves or Vinni Lettieri? God almighty.

Leave it to Vigneault to play Pavel Buchnevich and Vladislav Namestnikov with Beleskey on a mismatched fourth line. If that’s it for him, it’s fitting. He is just a horror show when it comes to lines and playing kids. It better be. If it’s not, I won’t watch a single period next season until he’s gone. He cannot coach this team.

It’s really hard to bash every player. You know a few tried. Kevin Hayes managed to be Even in the humiliation. Chytil wasn’t as lucky finishing minus-three with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Marc Staal was only a minus-one and finished the year plus-11 on a horrible team that finished in last place for the first time since the Dark Ages.

Lundqvist gave up five goals on 40 shots including Giroux’s breakaway goal high glove side that looked like a cardinal copy of Hall’s penalty shot. He must feel relieved that it’s over. He finishes with a 2.98 GAA and .915 save percentage in 63 games. Way too many played for him. That must change in the future. He’s 36 in a rebuild. There could be more tough times ahead.

Brady Skjei was the only player to play in all 82. He will need to grow into the shutdown role when his third season starts up in the Fall. He’s got time to recoup and get stronger as will Neal Pionk. As for the rest, questions remain. John Gilmour is a terrific skater but what is he? Rob O’Gara needs work. Tony DeAngelo should have a good chance if his ankle heals properly. Ryan Lindgren should get a good look in camp.

There are many questions which won’t get answered until after break up day. The first should be giving Vigneault his walking papers. His time is up. Every good run comes to a end.

I’m sure GM Jeff Gorton will have a lot of work to do. The NHL Draft Lottery is April 28 in Toronto. Only if both Chicago and Edmonton win can the Rangers finish 23rd. Not that it’ll matter. They never have any luck and have never picked first overall. What they have is a abundance of first round picks along with a pair of seconds and thirds. Plus either Namestnikov or Ryan Spooner with one possibly rerouted.

I’ll have more in the coming days. But here’s a little friendly reminder from school days past.

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The final Rangers game is a chance to make Flyers nervous

Later today at about 3:15 PM in the City of Brotherly Love on NBC, the Rangers play their final game of the season against the Flyers. Game 82 means a lot more to the hated rival who with just a point can make the playoffs which would eliminate the Panthers.

It was eight years ago that these teams played a final game in the same arena that would determine who made the playoffs. The Flyers won in a shootout and went on a miraculous run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Blackhawks. The Rangers went home for the first time in the Henrik Lundqvist Era. At least it had meaning.

This time, the rebuilding Blueshirts who have recalled Matt Beleskey and Steven Fogarty, can make the Flyers sweat it out if they can beat the Flyers in regulation. Something Lundqvist wouldn’t mind. It wouldn’t quite be revenge because it’s not the same circumstance. But it would at least give Florida a chance. They have to get a Flyers loss in regulation and win the last two games against the Sabres tonight at home and find a way to go into Boston tomorrow night and get two points.

There’s nothing to play for except pride. Is it realistic to think the Hartford Wolf Pack can play well enough to stun a desperate ad much better Flyers team in enemy territory? Probably not. But this is sports. The game must be played. Whether they can muster the energy and motivation won’t be known until a few hours from now.

Who knows? Maybe this is the game Pavel Buchnevich remembers to shoot the puck and score instead of being stuck on a ugly 14 goals in 73 games. But I thought he was a god. It’s a suggestion that the second-year Russian should practice taking 100 shots a day in the offseason. He’s not close to a “first liner” the foolish NYR bloggers would have a few of our brainwashed fans believe.

I’m more hopeful that first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil do something. That is if Alain Vigneault would stop being so stubborn and use Chytil on the power play and give Andersson ideal linemates instead of putting him in Siberia on the fourth line. Pa-th-etic!

At least this should be the end of bubble gum chew behind the bench. He’s not cut out to coach a younger roster that’s the antithesis of what he’s used to. Jeff Gorton better get on the phone with Sheldon Keefe.

I’d love to see Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have one last big game and torment Flyer fans. The same for Kevin Hayes, who’s up to a career best 25 goals. I’m real excited about his improvement and believe he’s primed for bigger things next season. Ditto Kreider and Zibanejad who are a dynamic duo that are capable of making a quantum leap.

To win, Brady Skjei must continue to improve at shutting down the opposition. That means seeing plenty of Hart candidate Claude Giroux, who enters play with 99 points. He will be a handful with linemates Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny.

Neal Pionk will continue to learn on the job with Marc Staal, who’s been instrumental in his development. Look for them to see plenty of Jake Voracek, rookie Nolan Patrick and Wayne Simmonds.

How will this team deal with the dangerous offense from super Flyers defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov? Avoid the penalty box.

I know they can potentially move up to 23rd if the Oilers and Blackhawks win. But what’s the big difference in the weighted NHL lottery which will favor the bottom three teams? Honestly, I don’t expect to get anywhere near a top 3 pick because in franchise history, the Rangers have never picked first overall. Let’s not delude ourselves.

I would rather win over the Flyers without them getting the stinking brownie point and make them and their fans nervous. Sure. There’s no guarantee the Panthers can pull it off. I wouldn’t even put it past them to lose to the Sabres, who are scoring goals and already secured the worst record. They’ll have to beat Buffalo and find a way to beat Boston tomorrow night for a second time this week.

So, let Lundqvist start and shutdown the Flyers. Let’s go out the right way.

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Devils playoff hockey is again a reality

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.

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Kinkaid is big reason the Devils are back in playoffs

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.

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Devils on the brink of postseason after rare demolition of Rangers

If this Devils season has been a refreshing change from recent years of hopeless ineptitude and boring hockey, last night at the Rock was even a step above that – it was reminiscent of the glory days with a playoff atmosphere on the ice and in the stands.  Arguably the Devils played their biggest game at the Prudential Center since the 2012 playoffs, and came up with their biggest win since Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals – also against the Rangers.  Of course, much has changed since May 25 almost six years ago…specifically 90% of the roster and 100% of management/ownership.  Six years is a longer time in life than in hockey but with all the off-ice drama and angst it seems like it’s taken longer than six years to get back to the brink of the promised land of the postseason.

Amazingly enough, the only drama at the arena yesterday was focused on the out-of-town scoreboard where the Islanders bumped off the Flyers in a wild game that put the Devils ahead of Philly for the moment, while the Blue Jackets came from 4-1 back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and prevent us from passing them in the standings too.  Of course the big game everyone was primarily focused on did not go our way as pro’s pro Roberto Luongo revived the Panthers’ season with a big-time 40+ save performance against the Predators and prevented a Devils clinch for at least two more nights.  Thankfully, the Devils’ easy 5-2 win on Tuesday ensured that they no longer should need to concern themselves with the OOT board.  One win of any kind in their last two games and the Devils are in the postseason at last, no questions asked.

If clinching yesterday against the Rangers after the nadir of Fan Depreciation Day against them three years ago would have been a sweet 180 degree turn of fortune, clinching tomorrow against Lou Lamoriello’s Leafs would be the height of irony.  Predictably, the Leafs plan to run out their first-string lineup tomorrow despite the fact the game means zero to them in the standings, being locked into the #3 seed in the Atlantic and a road matchup with either Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round.  As much as I hoped maybe the Leafs would rest a few guys, deep down I knew Lou and team president Brendan Shanahan didn’t exactly want to make it easy for us.  Say what you want about Lou’s departure from the Devils three years ago but he was basically fired, and in some ways probably feels like he got the last laugh landing in Toronto and making the playoffs for a second straight year with a young, up-and-coming team while the Devils are still – for the moment – on the outside looking in of the postseason.

Still you could sense at least the beginnings of a change at the Rock last night.  Not a change back into being relevant – that’s already happened, but rather a realization that maybe, just maybe this year is only the start of something special building and not just some fluke one-off year or even an elaborate setup for a dramatic last-minute rug pull out from under us (like say, the 2016 Jets who won a string of wild games down the stretch in the most un-Jet like clutch fashion only to come a cropper in the season finale once again).  Sure part of me’s still paranoid over that worst-case scenario especially the longer the Panthers refuse to die, but really last night the Devils looked like a team that wasn’t going to be denied.  And more strikingly, Taylor Hall looked like he wasn’t going to be denied a chance to finally shine in the postseason.  His already strong Hart credentials seemingly get better by the game with his best performance as a Devil last night, electrifying the crowd with two goals and two assists including a sensational penalty shot that salted the game away at 5-1 late in the second period and blew the roof off the Rock with more, and louder MVP chants than before.

There’s nothing left to say about Hall that hasn’t already been said.  Sure, there are other strong candidates for the Hart but if the voters don’t recognize his impact on this Devils team it’ll go down in team history alongside Scott Stevens being denied the ’93-94 Norris trophy despite an eye-popping season of 78 points and a +53 and Martin Brodeur being stiffed out of the 2003 Conn Smythe trophy as just another memorable individual award diss of a Devil by a biased hockey establishment.  Guess that would also be a reminder of the glory days too.  Despite missing five games, Hall has a very real chance now to set a Devils team record for points in a season, sitting at 93 just three points behind Patrik Elias’s outstanding 2000-01 season total of 96.

Despite Hall’s virtuouso performance, credit needs to go to a lot of different places assuming the Devils finish this 2017-18 regular season off the way it needs to be finished off.  Around the NHL, Nico Hischier is starting to get more attention for his stellar rookie season with 51 points and his two-way game, with coach John Hynes offering high praise saying his defensive play was as good as Travis Zajac’s.  If it wasn’t for the sensational Matt Barzal (who’s in his second post-draft year unlike Nico), the precocious Devil would be a front-runner for the Calder.  Drafting in under the steady Nico and the fast-starting Jesper Bratt, defenseman Will Butcher has been underrated for most of the season but having 44 points as a rookie defenseman in the NHL is nothing to sneeze at either and his two goals last night was a welcome sight.  Nor has he been the anticipated trainwreck defensively that guys who’ve had more experience than him have been at times (coughSeversonMoorecough).

I could go on and on about other guys like Kyle Palmieri – who clearly saved the season with his own virtuoso game last Tuesday, and also went full warrior mode by getting his own flight to Montreal for the game on Sunday after sustaining a scary cut just below his eye, refusing to miss a game even after the team initially left him back in Newark.  If you want to talk about veteran leadership there’s Brian Boyle and Ben Lovejoy, among others.  Sami Vatanen’s been a revelation as a first-pairing defenseman since being traded here from Anaheim, Mirco Mueller’s had a career revival since getting back into the lineup.  Others like Blake Coleman, Brian Gibbons and Stefan Noesen have provided grit and a surprising amount of scoring from the back lines.  You could say the same about Miles Wood too except that his game’s fallen off a bit since his suspension and last night both he and Pavel Zacha had scary bad turnovers that led to the only Ranger goals of the night.  Clearly guys like Zajac and captain Andy Greene deserve credit for being the lone stablizing forces in these last few years of tumult.  Even a guy like Patrick Maroon’s chipped in since his deadline-day trade from Edmonton.

Among the non-Hall players though, one has stood out the last two months – a most unlikely hero in goalie Keith Kinkaid.  His contribution can’t be overstated, especially coming as it has after the complete implosion of starting goalie Cory Schneider, and with Kinkaid getting off to his own scary bad start to the season.  Despite getting some fortunate wins Kinkaid really wasn’t playing all that well till early February.  Since then however, he’s been a new and improved goaltender – giving us the stabilazation in net we were supposed to have gotten from Cory and saving a season that could well have tettered on the brink of collapse even with Hall and company.  His numbers over the last two months in crunchtime are astonishing for anyone much less an undrafted career backup:

Kinkaid since February 3: 15-3-1 2.39 GAA .927 Spct

Consider that the Devils have a five-point lead on a playoff spot as of now…Kinkaid even going a decent 12-6-1 would have put us in an extremely precarious spot leaving us a point behind with one less game to play than the Panthers.  While Cory’s lost every game in 2018, Keith’s picked up the slack by winning darn near every game and has provided one of the most unlikely late-season goalie success stories this side of the Hamburglar’s run in Ottawa a couple seasons ago.  Unlike Andrew Hammond though, Kinkaid at least had somewhat established himself as a run of the mill backup before suddenly turning into Patrik Roy, Dominik Hasek and Brodeur all into one for a magical two-month stretch.  Still, given Kinkaid’s unsightly splits for the first three months of the season nobody could say they saw this coming.

There’s no more question over who the starting goalie for the rest of the season is or should be.  Keith’s earned the net.  Questions over what happens next year after the dust settles and you still have Cory inked to four more years at $6 million per are left for another day.  Right now we can just be thankful we have Keith, Hall, Nico and everyone else that’s made the first 80 games of 2017-18 a special ride.  But for its place to be cemented in Devil history as one of the most fun and meaningful regular seasons ever, the team needs to finish it off – preferably Thursday at home in front of another sellout crowd who’ll be amped to see a potential playoff clincher.  Clearly 2018 isn’t 2008 where playoff clinchers were met with a collective yawn and hibernation till April.

Perhaps the only regular seasons more meaningful than this one – should it finish in a playoff berth – in Devils history are 1987-88 (the Cinderella run to respectability) and 1993-94 (the beginnings of a dominant team).  As a fan and season ticket holder, 2008-09 was also a lot of fun with the unexpected success of AHL goaltender Scott Clemmensen keeping the team afloat and thriving while the previously indestructible Brodeur was on the shelf for four months.  Not to mention Brodeur returning and setting the all-time record for wins on the same transcendent night Patrik Elias set the team record for points.  In the end though, I don’t look on that season back nearly as fondly as I should, because of the ghastly playoff end that overshadowed it.  Much like missing the postseason somehow would overshadow what’s been a fun – albeit at times exacerbating – regular season.

To truly make this a special season, this team needs to finish the job and drop the hammer.  Don’t wait for the Panthers to lose…get it done yourselves tomorrow night on Fan Appreciation Day with a crowd ready to explode against a team that while talented still won’t have much to play for.  GET IT DONE.

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A Telling Quote from Kreider on Devils

It’s always interesting to hear what players say following losses. The Rangers are playing out the string with two games left at the Islanders tomorrow and at the Flyers Saturday.

After yesterday’s 5-2 embarrassment at the hands of MVP candidate Taylor Hall and the playoff bound Devils, Chris Kreider had a telling quote on the close Hudson rival that’s turned the tables. One which should sink in.

When you have one of your emerging team leaders praising the Devils by indicating how well coached they are, that speaks volumes about the current situation on Broadway. He’s far from alone.

If they don’t fire Alain Vigneault a day after it ends, something is very wrong.

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