Friday, April 6, 2012

Devils locked in at six seed, will play Southeast champs in the playoffs

After eighty-one games and with one day left in the NHL season, all sixteen playoff teams have been decided. That sweet sixteen includes the Devils, who now know they will be the #6 seed in the East and play the Southeast division champs when the playoffs begin next Wednesday. Whether that team is the Caps or Panthers won't be determined until late Saturday night though, hours after the Devils play their final game of the regular season against an Ottawa team that can finish either seventh or eighth - also depending on the Caps and Panthers results later on.

With a five-game winning streak heading into Fan Appreciation Day tomorrow, the Devils are going into the playoffs on the right note, and have accomplished every reachable milestone in the season's final week - capped off last night by their first win in Detroit since 1996. New Jersey's 2-1 win over the Wings also gave Martin Brodeur his 30th victory of the season, as he set an NHL record by reaching that milestone for the fourteenth time, breaking a tie with boyhood idol Patrick Roy. Petr Sykora's game-winning goal in the third period gave the revived winger his 20th of the season, the eleventh time in his career he's hit that mark. And as a team, the Devils reached the 100-point plateau for the eleventh time in franchise history, no small feat in the NHL's toughest division.

Yes, you can say none of that matters come the middle of next week, but at least the team goes into the playoffs feeling good about itself. Confidence is something this team needs, after its one-year hiatus from the playoffs last year and three straight one and dones before that. Whether the opponent turns out to be Washington or Florida (still needing a point gained or a point lost by the Caps to wrap up its first-ever division title), the first series will provide its own set of challenges. At least the Devils have a realistic chance to advance this time around though, for the first time since the ill-fated Carolina series of 2009.

In some ways, I'd prefer opening on the road - given the Devils' poor home playoff record since moving to Newark (just 3-7, though a cynic might say three of those losses against the Rangers weren't real home games). Even if the Devils' road playoff record has been worse since the lockout. This year's team seems to have a toughness lacking in some of the past few seasons - evidenced by how they responded to slumps, the number of games they've come back in and how they've managed to fix issues that plagued them earlier in the season...from an alarming power play that couldn't score and gave up goals by the hatful, to bad third periods, and adding depth to the bottom two forward lines.

While the schedule won't be announced until probably early Sunday morning after all matchups have been set late Saturday night, odds are given the way the playoffs are spaced out the Devils will be playing Games 3 and 4 at home on Sunday and Tuesday. Mainly because the temporary co-tenant NBA Nets will be playing at home Monday and Wednesday, making that choice a seemingly easy one for the NHL. Figure on a Wednesday-Friday start, whether the series opens in Florida or DC. Odds still favor that matchup being the Panthers, despite their five-game losing streak. All they need is one point against the Hurricanes tomorrow, or one point lost by the Caps against the Rangers to win the division. And clearly Florida will be more relaxed now that they have broken their postseason jinx - clinching despite a loss in DC due to a Flyer win over the Sabres last night.

Elsewhere in the East, the Rangers will be the top seed and are still playing for the President's Trophy tomorrow, the Bruins are locked in at #2, and the Civil War of Pennsylvania is confirmed as the 4-5 series of death between the Penguins and Flyers. A series ratcheted up by the teams' donnybrook in Pittsburgh last weekend, which led to a screaming match between Flyers coach Pete Laviolette and the Penguins' staff. Ironically, the Rangers have their own issues with the NHL's golden children now after Brooks Orpik's contreversial knee-on-knee hit with Derek Stepan. One thing you have to say about this Atlantic Division, it's no-holds barred warfare.

Out west, Vancouver's trying to hold off the Blues - proud champions of a Central division nearly as tough as the Atlantic, which could also have four hundred-point teams. Perhaps the only thing seperating the two divisions is the fact the last-place Islanders have still had a much better year than the Central's cellar-dwelling Blue Jackets. Erroneously, the home-and-home series between the Kings and Sharks in the Pacific has been labeled as a division showdown. It may wind up being that, but Dave Tippett's Coyotes (one point back of both teams, with a game in hand tonight) could have something to say about that too. While every playoff team out West has been decided, none of the seeds are locked in.

Despite the lack of sudden-death urgency tomorrow when all 30 NHL teams will close out the regular season, at least there'll be plenty of movement seeding-wise, especially in the West. And the local teams will finally know who they get to play in the first round (the Rangers would play either the Southeast loser or Ottawa). I'll probably rap out my playoff preview early next week, once the matchup is set. Hope everyone has a good holiday weekend!

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