Last night's 3-1 win over the Islanders that clinched no less than the 6th seed for the Devils and gave them their fourth win in six games against their Long Island neighbors was marred by the news that young Swede Jacob Josefson fractured his wrist and would be gone at least 4-6 weeks, which is likely going to be the rest of the season including playoffs. While this is hardly the first time Josefson's been hurt - also missing 37 games with a broken clavicle earlier this year and 30 games last year with a detached ligament in his hand - in some ways this was the most discouraging. Apparently Josefson got hurt on a play where he didn't so much collide with Jay Pandolfo as he did bump into him. I'm sorry, when you break a bone on Pandolfo, that's about as brittle as can be.
Not to mention Josefson had been playing the best hockey of his young career before getting hurt, and had given the Devils a fourth line they could roll out consistently and actually get plus production from it for the first time in years. At this point though, you really have to wonder if the pivotman will ever stay healthy. In a contact sport, you can't be getting injured by guys who barely swat a fly - no offense to Jay (a long-time beloved Devil, and certainly did nothing wrong on the play), but the next hard check I see from him will be his first.
With Josefson done, what will coach Pete DeBoer do? Behind door number one is the garbage already on the NHL roster known as one-dimensional goons Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, who shouldn't be anywhere closer to the ice than the press box during the playoffs. Door number two is guys who have shuttled between here and Albany all season like Brad Mills, Steve Zalewski and Tim Sestito. Those options aren't exactly appealing either, although I wouldn't mind another look at Zalewski, who wasn't terrible in his two games and did play double-digit minutes. Also, there's door number three, which is play a guy like Peter Harrold (who's been playing well on defense) at forward and have a de facto 11 forward, 7 defenseman lineup. You can't really start double-shifting Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise in the playoffs though, especially with how much icetime they've logged this year on the whole and with the threat of multi-OT games.
Then finally, there's door number four which DeBoer has been loath to even step near this year - Vladimir Zharkov. Yes, the young Russian hasn't been able to provide much offensively but he's so much better at every other aspect of the game than the other guys who would be playing on the fourth line it's not even funny. And he has more potential offensively than any of them too. For some reason however, the Jacques Lemaire favorite has barely gotten a look under DeBoer, with one short-term callup earlier this season and no actual game action. The excuse that you need a physical presence on the fourth line no longer flies considering you're trying to replace a non-physical presence in Josefson anyway. Not to mention you just cannot be playing goons on the fourth line that barely belong in the AHL, let alone an NHL playoff game.
Aside from the bad news on Josefson, the Devils did manage to lock up at least the 6th seed last night, due to their win and Ottawa's regulation loss to Carolina. There's still a chance the Devils could move up to 5 and play the Pens in the first round, if the Flyers lose to Buffalo and Pittsburgh in regulation, while we beat Detroit and Ottawa. It could happen since Buffalo will need the game after their miraculous revival from the dead against the Leafs, and the Pens will be looking to send a message after their brawl-filled loss last weekend if they do play the Flyers in the playoffs. Not to mention the teams we're playing have little motivation themselves. Detroit could still get home-ice in the first round but don't seem as if they care about that with their play in recent weeks and Ottawa's already said they'll be resting guys since they're locked into the #7 seed.
If we do finish with the #6 seed, we didn't get any closer to finding out who the #3 would be after the Panthers' amazing choke job against Winnipeg at home last night - losing a 3-0 lead and dropping a point in OT that would have clinched their first playoff berth in a decade and their first division title ever. That result left the Panthers still needing one point the rest of the way to win the division, or having the Caps lose a point in their final two games. That could set up an interesting scenario Thursday in DC, where the Caps need a regulation win over Florida to have any shot at the division but can't do something drastic like pull the goalie at the end of regulation to go for it and risk losing both points because the Sabres are on their ninth life and still breathing down the Caps' necks for the eighth seed.
To sum it up, if the Devils win their last two and the Flyers lose two in regulation, the Devils get the 5th seed and play at Pittsburgh in the first round. Any other result guarantees the Devils the 6th seed and either Florida or Washington, depending on how they sort things out Thursday and potentially Saturday. The monkey in the room right now (that isn't quite a gorilla yet) is it won't benefit the Devils to win if the Flyers keep losing. Not if you have to face a recent Stanley Cup champ and an excellent team like the Pens in the first round.
That's not to say the Southeast winner would be a layup, especially if it turns out to be the Caps, who have a returning (from injury) Nicklas Backstrom. However, with the way we looked against a healthy Pens team the last couple of times we played, I'd prefer not to go down that road so early. If we can't beat the Caps or Panthers in the first round, we wouldn't beat anyone else anyway. This team needs to get some confidence in the postseason and win a playoff round for the first time in five years. Unfortunately, that task just got a little harder without Josefson.