NEWARK – Since winning their season opener on Oct. 7, the New Jersey Devils have held a playoff spot every day of the 2017-18 season. However, with only five games remaining on their schedule and with the surging Florida Panthers nipping at their heels for the eighth and final seed in the East, the Devils are in peril of not reaching the playoffs at all.
It is enough to make lesser teams or individuals a bit queasy. But this Devils squad – a mixture of young first timers to the NHL playoff race and veterans hungry to return to the postseason -- are emboldened by their situation. Collectively, the Devils embrace their somewhat chaotic day-to-day situation in the NHL’s stretch drive and, by and large, thrive.
“Even though there is a pressure, and it’s been a challenge, I think we’ve embraced it,” veteran center Travis Zajac told Sporting News. “Guys are having fun and also are working hard every day…and that’s been the right focus for us.”
New Jersey is 6-2-1 in its last nine games, including four wins in six games on a recent make-or-break road trip. Entering play Friday – an off day for both teams – the Devils have 89 points, three more than the Panthers, though Florida retains a game in hand.
A look at back at the previous three days showcases the highs and lows of being in such a tight race for a postseason playoff berth for the Devils, who are seeking to end a five-year postseason drought.
Coming off consecutive victories of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning – two of the best teams in the league – the Devils host the tenth-place Carolina Hurricanes at the Prudential Center. They have only a one-point lead, though, on the Panthers, who are 20-6-1 since Jan. 30, and owners of a game in hand.
The Devils find themselves in a desperate situation, trailing the ‘Canes 3-2 midway through the third period. Kyle Palmieri’s second goal of the night, though, pulls New Jersey even and Stefan Noesen scores with just 1:33 remaining in regulation.
In a matter of minutes, the Devils go from a possible crushing defeat to an uplifting, and crucial, 4-3 victory which puts them up three points on the ide Panthers.
“Every night the building is electric,” said Devils forward Blake Coleman. “These are fun games to play in.”
Now it’s the Devils turn to watch – and head coach John Hynes admits he’s got the television on and is doing exactly that, watching – as the Panthers skate against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
New Jersey does not play on this night and, as Palmieri points out, “you can’t hide under a rock” and ignore what’s going on in other games. So, many, if not most, of the Devils either watch or check their phones for updates on the Panthers game.
“I watched the Florida-Toronto game and I’m hoping Florida does not get any points,” offered Taylor Hall. “The last thing we want is to rely on someone else, and at the end of the day, we’re trying to take care of our own business. But I watch.”
Hall is as vested as anyone in this playoff push by the Devils. He is not a youngster in his first league rodeo nor is he a veteran with playoff experience. The former top overall draft pick by the Oilers in 2010 has 525 games of regular-season experience in the NHL, but has yet to appear in a single postseason contest.
He is a man possessed this season, leading the Devils – virtually carrying them on his broad shoulders at times – with career-high offensive production and a will to win unseen to this level yet in his career. A legit Hart Trophy candidate, Hall already established new career highs with 34 goals and 86 points this season.
As much as Hall is most concerned about his own team’s play, he wants the Panthers to lose. They do. The Leafs jump out to a 3-0 lead and then make the Devils sweat it out before finishing off a 4-3 victory over the Panthers.
The Devils remain three points up on the Panthers and another day is off the NHL calendar.
The buzz-phrase for the Devils on this day is “controlling our own destiny”.
New Jersey has a three-point lead on the Panthers and has played only one more game, meaning if the Devils win their remaining six games, they’re in the playoffs.
“We want to be able to control it and not have to sit there and scoreboard watch every night and hope for bad things to happen to other teams, not bad things, but for them to lose,” explained New Jersey’s 35-year-old captain Andy Greene.
“It’s on us. That’s the way we want it.”
On this night, both teams are in action. The Devils host the Penguins, seeking a sweep of the four-game season series. The Panthers are in Ottawa to face the woeful Senators.
The possibilities are nearly endless. The Devils could be one, two, three, four or five points up on the Panthers when the night is over.
Puck drops at The Rock at 7 pm and thirty minutes later in Ottawa. The Devils score first on another Palmieri goal, his 24th, but skate to the first intermission tied 1-1. The Panthers and Senators play a scoreless first period.
Kris Letang gives the Penguins a 2-1 lead early in the second period, but Hall wires the game-tying power play goal through a Patrick Maroon screen, off the post and in at 14:41. It’s 2-2 at the second intermission in Jersey, while the Panthers secure a 2-1 lead north of the border.
Coleman swats in his own rebound at 5:11 of the third period to give the Devils a 3-2 lead. Not long after, the Sens score early in the third to tie the Panthers, 2-2.
But another head-spinning series of twists and turns occurs, both in Newark and Kanata.
Patric Hornqvist banks a shot off the post, then the back of goaltender Keith Kinkaid’s pads and over the goal line at 11:26 of the third. Sidney Crosby then scores a surreal goal just 19 seconds into overtime. Devils get a point, but lose 4-3.
“He’s got some good hand-eye,” Palmieri deadpans after the game.
“It’s a skilled play by one of the most skilled players to ever play the game.”
Crosby is here for opening day in OT. ⚾️ pic.twitter.com/hy4PUGJn00— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) March 30, 2018
Coleman admits, “it stings to lose the second point.”
Attention turns to Ottawa, where the Panthers and Senators head to overtime, as well, meaning Florida matched New Jersey’s point and seeks one more.
After dominating the extra session, though, the Panthers lose when Jean-Gabriel Pageau scores the game-winner with 12.9 seconds remaining in OT – on a penalty shot to boot. Can’t make this up.
Destiny is still in the Devils hands. Another day is crossed off the regular season calendar.
“I’m having fun,” said New Jersey’s 19-year-old wunderkid Nico Hischier, who picked up an assist for his 50th point Thursday. “I like these big games, they’re all important. It’s fun.”