At times this season's been fun and at times it's been like a tooth extraction, but tonight the Devils face off in Carolina virtually assured of a playoff spot. New Jersey only needs one point out of their game or the Caps or Sabres losing a point in either of their games to officially clinch with just three games remaining in the regular season after tonight. With the Caps still in the hunt for the playoffs (and a division!), it's probably unlikely they lose against a bad Montreal team so we'll have to get a positive result out of ours, or Buffalo will have to lose a point against rival Toronto - who's also playing out the string. Then again I've already had egg on my face assuming teams in the hunt facing off against teams playing out the string would win...but more on that later.
To do that, the Devils have to carry over the momentum of their last 30-35 minutes against Tampa, where after another dreary first period following a terrible game against the Blackhawks Tuesday that they somehow won in a shootout, suddenly the team came to life and popped in six goals in the final two periods (four in the second period alone!). Every goal was scored by a different player, as the depth the Devils have struggled to find this season was in full force Thursday night. Of course, the return of Travis Zajac - he's alive! - helps in that regard though ironically Zajac was one of the few Devils not to register a point and was a -2. On the plus side he was 14-4 on faceoffs, and that's definitely an area we've needed help in all year.
After a Ryan Malone goal with 44 seconds left in the first period ended a bad twenty minutes of hockey with the Devils down 1-0, I wasn't as much angry as I was thankful we somehow won a game Tuesday which I didn't see but by all accounts the only Devil to show up in the final two periods was Martin Brodeur - who turned in another 35+ save performance and won a shootout (with Zajac getting the game winner) after the Hawks' Andrew Shaw hit the post in 'extra innings'. If the Devils had lost in regulation Tuesday, coupled with a bad effort Thursday that could have really spelled trouble, the way I feared it might in my last blog.
However, after a two-week hibernation the Devils suddenly came to life through a familiar method - scoring shorthanded. After a Petr Sykora penalty early in the second, Patrik Elias and Danius Zubrus found themselves on a two-on-one going the other way, and Elias found Zubrus with a perfect feed for the big Russian's 17th goal of the season at 3:04. Even that bit of prosperity didn't quite wake the team up though, as Brodeur of all people made a puck-handling mistake with poor rebound control on a 200-foot dump-in that went right to Eric Brewer, who fed Malone in front for his second goal of the game.
If one line was playing well in the first period, it was the fourth line of Jacob Josefson, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. That line would eventually factor into the Devils' second goal, with Carter getting the primary assist on Josefson's second of the year at 6:54. After a scoring drought for much of the season, it's nice to see the young Swede get going in time for the postseason and become a viable contributor, especially while he's stuck below Zajac, Elias and Adam Henrique on the pecking order as far as playing center. Even that didn't stop our run of mistakes, as Malone capitalized on yet another breakdown in front to tie the game and get a hat trick barely halfway through the contest.
Once more, the Devils tied the game at 13:26 with Ilya Kovalchuk jumping on a loose puck in the slot and firing a quick wrister past Dwayne Roloson for his team-leading 33rd of the season. Moments later, the Devils won a power play and deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky fired a rocket past Roloson that gave the Czech defenseman his second goal as a Devil, put them into the lead at 14:37 and caused confusion on the Tampa bench. Immediately after the goal, Tampa coach Guy Boucher was signaling for one of his other players (winger Teddy Purcell) to go onto the ice, but Roloson mistakenly thought he was getting pulled and went to the bench with backup Sebastian Caron coming in before the goalies switched again. It was so goofy I thought it was a cheap trick by Boucher to get a timeout without having to use one or actually pull the goalie, but apparently it wasn't.
As it turned out, that moment was a harbinger as the Devils put two more past Roloson in the third and got him pulled for real. First, Bryce Salvador made a brilliant play to keep a puck in the zone and put it on net with Alexei Ponikarovsky getting a tip-in goal for his 13th overall at 2:25 of the third. Then David Clarkson pounced on a rebound at 6:05 for his 29th goal of the season and the Devils' final tally of the night. A goal by Trevor Smith with less than nine seconds left only served to dent Brodeur's GAA as the Devils won the game 6-4 in what was a dominant last half of the game, outshooting Tampa 30-11 in the final two periods.
New Jersey could have clinched its playoff berth Thursday if the Caps had lost against Boston, but despite giving up a two-goal lead late that restored some hope to us for an arena celebration, the Caps did win the shootout. I'd cleared out by then, unlike the fans I saw in an NJDevs picture huddled around a radio listening to the end of the game, but I was following the end of the contest on my NHL GameCenter app and knew about the shootout loss by the time I got to the light rail. Oh, the wonders of modern technology. So, instead of clinching at home they can clinch in Carolina tonight in front of former coach John MacLean - an assistant on the Canes' bench, as the Canes are on their way to their third straight playoff-less season since breaking hearts in New Jersey (and Boston) in 2009.
In fact the Devils can get all but locked into the sixth seed tonight if they win and Ottawa loses in regulation in Philly. Those results would mean the Devils only need a point (won by them or lost by the Senators) to guarantee finishing ahead of Ottawa and would also keep them four points behind the Flyers, without a tiebreker and with just three games left - and Philly also has a game in hand. However, the reward for finishing sixth is getting more questionable by the day. Those same Caps that are currently on the outside looking in still have a chance to win their division because of an almost unfathomable collapse by the Panthers.
True, Florida's still four points up with four games left for each team but the two teams have a showdown in D.C looming in the penultimate game of the season, and the Panthers just botched a six-game portion of their schedule I was sure they would do well in. Especially after beating teams like Boston, Buffalo and Philly just before this stretch. Yet, the Panthers have somehow managed only one win in their last six games, all against teams out of the playoffs. My joke before this stretch was that they were facing off against a who's who of the draft lottery, but after losing three games in OT/SO (including a heartbreaking loss in Minnesota the previous night) they got whipped by the worst team in the NHL last night in Columbus and the joke's on me.
Ironically with a week to go in the season, the real race we as Devils fans are watching is the Florida-Washington race. In fact, other than the race for the eighth seed it's the only real excitement in the East in the last week of the season. Amazingly, the Isles helped out their blood rivals the Rangers big-time by sweeping the Penguins in a home-and-home, virtually assuring the Rangers of the #1 seed in the East with just four games left (five points ahead, though the teams still have a game in Pittsburgh) and annoying their own fans who were already probably doing draft position calculations. There seems little doubt the 4-5 series will be a Pennsylvania classic but with the Penguins' recent struggles the Flyers now have a chance to steal home-ice in the first-round, only four points behind with a game in hand AND two more head-to-head matchups in the season's final week.
Florida's struggles have seemingly locked up the #2 seed for Boston - four points up with a game in hand on the Panthers - and currently they'd face off against division rival Ottawa in the first round though the Sens aren't assured of a playoff berth by any stretch with a mere two-point lead on surging Buffalo and Washington, though they still have a game in hand themselves. Really, it's a battle between four teams for three spots factoring in Florida and the division race, as well as the #7 and #8 seeds. Buffalo's been the hottest team on the bubble recently but a home-and-home with Toronto could prove decisive. After a surprisingly good start, Toronto's out of the postseason hunt yet again this year (haha), but at this point they'd love nothing more than to take the rival Sabres out with them.
Either way, it'll be a fun last week - especially adding in the West with all the craziness in the Pacific Division (four teams within two points battling for three spots, including the #3 seed). Even with what could be two meaningless home games for the Devils in the final week I'll be there. In fact, thanks to their good performance on Thursday, all fans in attendance can use their ticket stub from the game to get a free order of buffalo wings at nearby Edison Ale House before Tuesday night's home contest with the Isles. I can only handle a few wings myself but I do like the taste so I'll probably try to redeem that before Tuesday's game.
For Thursday's game at Detroit, there'll be a viewing party at a new Irish tavern in Parsippany that I'll be going to. At least it's closer than Miami Mike's, off of Route 10, but it'll be different cause every other viewing party I've been to has been there. And for Fan Appreciation afternoon on Saturday, it's stated that everyone is guaranteed to win a prize but really that isn't true, what every fan gets is a scratch-off ticket where you 'can' win a prize but most people just get a discount at the Devils Den. I know, cause it was the same last year and when I tried to go to the Devils Den to use my card it was a zoo, so in the end it wasn't even worth it. At least we do get the team poster out of it.