Even though the playoffs are still ahead for the Devils, in a sense they're getting a taste of playoff hockey this week after completing four games against the New York teams in seven days, including three against the Isles. While our de facto best-of-three had a Devil-Ranger showdown sandwiched in the middle, the Isles literally did play us three straight. If Jack Capuano's club had any playoff hopes at all left, they were basically eliminated by their two losses to the Devils in the last 72 hours that left them nine points behind eighth-place Washington.
Realistically, they had to sweep or at least get five points in these three games to stay in the race at all, especialy given all the teams in front of them. Still, after rookie Anders Nilsson shut us out last Sunday and was shutting us out for fifty-eight minutes tonight on Long Island, you were starting to wonder if they had started him instead of vet Evgeni Nabokov Thursday would the result have been different there too - since we lit up the vet for five goals on Thursday (including an Ilya Kovalchuk hat trick that broke open a 2-1 game in the third period).
While Devils captain Zach Parise lamented that the Devils didn't make Nilsson work at all during the first two periods on Long Island last Sunday, they at least made him sweat with 35 shots on net tonight, but still couldn't get anything past a rookie making only his third NHL start (including a Kovalchuk shot that rang off the post in the second period). In his only other start in the NHL, Nilsson played like a spooked horse in Sidney Crosby's return version 1.0 in Pittsburgh but certainly looked more poised this week against us than anyone could have anticipated. Other than maybe rookie Adam Larsson, who played against Nilsson's Swedish team in their league playoffs last year and knew how tough the big goalie could be.
Yet, even with all that it was Johan Hedberg who had to make the stronger saves, including one on a breakdown that left Matt Moulson all alone in front of the net on a power play - as well as several other quality stops that somehow kept the game at 0-0 until early in the third period, when John Tavares finally beat him off a bang-bang play where the former #1 pick got open in the slot and roofed one to give the Isles what looked like an almost insurmountable one-goal lead. Despite outshooting the Isles 29-15 in the final two periods, it looked as if even a tie would never come.
Then stunningly, in a fourteen-second sequence the Isles gave up the tying goal by David Clarkson at 18:21, watched P.A. Parenteau commit a boarding penalty and could do nothing about a seeing-eye winner from deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky that stunned the team wearing white. Again, all in fourteen seconds. Even after taking that double body blow, the Isles still came close to tying the game twice but in the end the vet Swede in our net bested his younger counterpart in the Isles' net by the slimmest of margins.
With a three-game winning streak that ended any realistic doubt over whether the Devils could make the playoffs behind them, the Devils can now focus on fine-tuning and getting players healthy for the postseason. You always want to finish as high as possible but this season it does look like a bit of a double-edged sword considering the Atlantic division can - unbelievably - have the top four point-getters in the Eastern Conference with the Rangers and Penguins pacing the field with 91 and 87, respectively and the Devils, Flyers and Bruins all having 83. What that more or less ensures is that the 4-5 matchup will be an Atlantic showdown, but between which two teams won't be known until the final days of the season in all likelihood.
I do shudder at the thought that finishing sixth and playing off against a Southeast winner with fewer points would somehow be an easy series. Yes, those teams aren't better than us but they get the first two games at home. And in the case of the Caps, they're as talented as anyone but incredibly Jekyll-and-Hyde. With the Panthers, they've given up almost thirty goals more than they've scored but have played us tough in their four matchups this year. And though Winnipeg isn't a great team, who wants to go into that nuthouse in a potential Game 7? Still, taking our chances against the Southeast lottery winner might be a better alternative to playing a Pens team with a supposedly ready-to-return Crosby, the Rangers or Flyers in a 4-5 series.
One thing's for sure, if the Devils keep playing like this they'll be a tough out for anyone, bad matchup or no bad matchup.