There have been a lot of big games this season. None seem more crucial than this one. Tonight, in game 81 out of 82, the New Jersey Devils can clinch a playoff spot, and move three points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers for the first wild card spot. Let’s preview tonight’s game.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+
Watching the Leafs: Toronto tied their franchise record for points in a single season with their 5-2 Monday night win over the Buffalo Sabres. Auston Matthews nearly outscored the entire Sabres team, and 34-year-old backup Curtis McElhinney made his first consecutive starts of the season.
The Maple Leafs are the third place team in the Atlantic. They sit behind the Boston Bruins, and Tampa Bay Lightning, who can be categorized as two of the elite teams in the league this year. But that hasn’t stopped the Toronto faithful from dubbing the race for first in the Atlantic as a ploy to escape the Leafs in the first round. Never change, Toronto. Never change.
So what does Toronto bring to the table? A balanced offense that can hang with the best of them. Toronto’s lineup boasts nine 40-point seasons this year. If Zach Hyman collects a point tonight that’ll be ten players with a 40-point year in Toronto. That’s a truly balanced offensive attack, and I don’t remember the last time I saw two defensemen on the same team break the 50-point plateau in one season. That is, until I checked out Subban and Roman Josi’s numbers from this season. Regardless, the Leafs are an offensive powerhouse stacked with point-producers and a dynamic, talented core of young forwards. They finish out their season with games against New Jersey, and Montreal on Saturday.
Where the Devils Stand: New Jersey leap-frogged Philadelphia with their win over the Rangers on Tuesday night. That night the Flyers narrowly lost in regulation to the New York Islanders. Philly now sits in the East’s second wild card and should that fact stand until the end of the regular season, the Flyers would end up playing one of the Lightning or Bruins.
Meanwhile, New Jersey has the chance to jump one more place in the standings, if they’re able to win out, and get some luck going their way in the process. If the Devils win their remaining two games, and Columbus loses it’s remaining two, the Devils would swipe third in the Metropolitan and play the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in round one. If New Jersey stays in the WC1 spot, then they’ll have the Washington Capitals in round one.
The Rubber Match: The last time New Jersey and Toronto got together was November 16 of last year. The Devils and Maple Leafs battled to a regulation tie, and in overtime it was William Nylander who won the game for the hometown Leafs. November feels like a long time ago now. At the time that game between the Devils and Toronto took place, New Jersey was still two weeks off of their biggest, most important trade acquisition of the season in acquiring Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks. New Jersey took the previous meeting between these two, a 6-3 decision on October 11.
Things to Watch For: Of course there is important hockey to be played by the Devils tonight, but elsewhere in the NHL, tonight is an interesting night of good matchups. On NBCSN the Nashville Predators will square off against the Washington Capitals at 7:00 PM EST. Also at 7 PM, but not nationally televised, is a meeting between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Islanders and Rangers will play one final time in the battle for the Metropolitan Division’s basement. For the late games on the West Coast, the Minnesota Wild enter the Staples Center to play Hart Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar, and the Los Angeles Kings. A little further North, the Colorado Avalanche will visit the San Jose Sharks, with Colorado’s playoff hopes still very much on the line.
So: Enjoy the night of hockey, folks. It should be a good one. I’ll leave you with one final thought: The New Jersey Devils have never clinched a playoff spot when Lou Lamoriello was not in the building. If they win tonight, that streak will remain unbroken.