Win and they were in. The New Jersey Devils won. They beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-1. And so they are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. No more do the Devils need any help from other teams. No more does every shift or ever shooting attempt in a close, you-better-win game will cause some anxiety. No more does one have to worry about if the other team’s goaltender will be great or if the Devils’ goaltender has to be near-perfect or if the special teams situation has to work. The Devils and their fans can exhale. At least until next week when the playoffs begin.
I am so happy right now to type this. It has been five long seasons. I’ve written about the Devils throughout those seasons (and before them). There were good processes ending up badly. There was a teardown of the organization from all over. There was all kinds of drama from a Russian player to ownership to transactions made and not made. There was hot anticipation for draft picks from the ones the Devils made to the ones that perhaps they should have made. The Devils seemingly hit rock bottom in 2016-17. They have ascended in 2017-18. Finally, the season will not end in the first week or so in April. Finally, there will be more games to write, think, watch, argue, and study about our favorite hockey team. Finally, there will be a postseason for the Devils.
The Devils clinched tonight. They took care of business. As with many games in this season, it was not at all easy. It was tense. It could have all went awry with a chance bounce, tip, or error. The 2-1 lead held up all the way to the glorious finish. The Devils made the playoffs. That is the most important result tonight and of the 2017-18 regular season. They did it.
The Opposition Opinion: Katya Knappe has this recap at Pension Plan Puppets. Per her headline, the Devils making it is the story out of this one. As it should be, although I may be biased.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Actual Recap of the Game or Patrick Maroon was a Hero Tonight: Despite rolling over Toronto and eating up their crummy zone exits for the first ten minutes of the game, the Devils conceded the first goal. A power play goal against that came from a bad call on Nico Hischier from a cross-slot pass that wasn’t clean to a William Nylander shot that Andy Greene tipped to just beat Keith Kinkaid shortside. It was Toronto’s second shot of the game, 6:56 into it. The Devils looked for a response but could not find it with the myriad of shooting attempts and shots - often from a long distance away. Deflections and rebounds were attempted but none would get past Frederik Andersen. The ice was tilted: the Devils out-attempted Toronto 30-10, out-shot them 13-8, and out-chanced them 12-4 in 5-on-5 play. It was still a one-goal deficit after the first period.
In the second period, the Maple Leafs more or less resembled a playoff team by actually attacking in 5-on-5 situations. There were even some dicey situations for the Devils where Keith Kinkaid had to be big and/or the Leafs had to mess up the shot. There were some instances where the Devils’ tendency to outlet and make defensive zone passes in the hopes of breaking out on offense did not work out and gave Toronto further time to attack. But the Devils got their offense going and it ultimately worked to make the comeback. At the center of it was Patrick Maroon.
Maroon won a neutral zone battle and effectively had a give-and-go with Pavel Zacha. Zacha fired a laser to beat Andersen high at an angle to tie up the game about eight minutes into the second period.
It was a fantastic finish by the young pivot and it got the Rock back to being excited about what could come.
The Devils worked to break through. They mostly stifled Toronto from getting too many choice opportunities on offense. They made sure they would not breakaway or get an odd man rush. The Devils tried to use their speed with varying levels of success. What ultimately gave them the edge came late in the period. Once again, Patrick Maroon made this play happen.
Maroon circled the zone while protecting the puck. He got past Nazem Kadri along the boards. He went past Brian Boyle, who shielded him from Connor Carrick. Morgan Reilly left the top of the crease and stretched his stick out towards Maroon. As he did that, Maroon made a pass to Miles Wood at the top of the crease. Wood just fired it low and it went though Andersen’s five-hole. It was 2-1 Devils with minutes left in the second period.
Another fine finish with an even better contribution by Maroon. He did not get named as a star in tonight’s game, but he really should have been. He was crucial to both goals happening; he fully earned his primary assists.
Before the second ended - and right after Wood’s goal - Taylor Hall nearly made it 3-1 when he took the puck away from Toronto’s defense and went in alone on Andersen. Andersen made a tough save to deny him. It was a sign that the Devils knew they were not done yet.
Unfortunately, the third period became one of survival. Toronto knew they needed to attack more and so they did. The Devils did try to battle back. There were some strong offensive shifts that kept Toronto plenty honest. There were some shots and instances where New Jersey could have scored a third goal. Andersen played rather well tonight. He denied the Devils on 35 of 37 shots on net. That said, as the third period went on, the Devils were clearing more pucks, taking more icings, and generally trying to treat the game as a penalty kill. that would be one thing, except they were still conceding some great chances for Toronto. Fortunately, Keith Kinkaid came to play.
Kinkaid became a hero of the game for his third period alone. Having Auston Matthews and William Nylander have free shots amid chaos in the slot rarely ends well. But Kinkaid stopped them. Giving Nazem Kadri a scoring chance as the defense was left confused could have went badly. Kinkaid ensured it did not. Having long shots go by sticks and bodies only needs one deflection for it to go wrong. Kinkaid did well to make the stops and swallow the puck. Dump-ins forcing the goalie to make plays with his stick have a chance of going awry. Kinkaid was mostly good outside of his crease. Toronto played their best and their most dangerous hockey in the third period. Even with six Toronto skaters or five on a PK, Kinkaid maintained poise and control amid the pressure of the game.
That pressure lasted right into the very end. Andersen was pulled with about two and a half minutes left to play. The first time the Devils touched the puck, they went for a long shot empty-net try. It missed for an icing. Toronto attacked and Kinkaid got a freeze. They got a zone exit off the next draw. They could not go further and Toronto tried to get back in. In the final minute and chasing down a puck, Mitch Marner fouled Stefan Noesen - and the trip was called. Just over 30 seconds left and the Devils had a power play. Even then, Toronto got a clear and rushed up ice with five skaters to hope for one desperate charge. With six seconds left, the Devils got one last clear. As is seemingly tradition, Devils could not get the empty netter or that insurance goal. It was down to the wire - but the Devils prevailed regardless.
Overall, I liked how the performance went in the first two periods. I would have appreciated a stronger effort in the third period, especially in the final five minutes or so. In a one-score game, I’m not of fan playing a 5-on-5 situation like it was a penalty kill. While Kinkaid rose to the challenge again, putting the game on his shoulders instead of giving him a cushion is not ideal in my eyes. I appreciate the desire to get exits rather than look for offensive rushes or risk a puck movement going wrong in the defensive end. But I think the Devils could have been smarter, or at least more shallow with their clearances. Still, I liked plenty of what I saw out of the Devils.
My only other main criticism is that when they tilted the ice early on, the Devils settled for a lot of long-range shots. Instead of trying to work the puck in closer, they were content to cycle well out of the corner and make a pass to the points for a shot. I get that sometimes that’s the only play to make and with coverage in the shooting lane, a deflection is possible. To do it as many times as the Devils did it seemed excessive. I’ll take that over watching the Devils getting run over and over in the run of play - something that only happened on a shifts here and there.
One last thought about this summary of the game in general. I thought Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier were putting in plenty of good work. They did not create as much offense as I thought they did in 5-on-5 play. Yet, while they were out-attempted by the unit of Kadri, Marner, and Patrick Marleau; the shots in 5-on-5 were even at three each. So I can respect limiting a top line on Toronto. Anyway, when Hall is not getting a whole lot going on offense, that is usually bad for the team. But tonight, the team all contributed with 37 shots on Andersen and goals and assists coming from the likes of Zacha, Wood (who had five shots on net tonight and seemingly a ton of attempts to rush up ice), and Maroon.
Unsung Heroes of the Night: Take a bow, Mirco Mueller and John Moore. When that pairing was on the ice, the Devils often went forward. The Devils out-attempted the Leafs 19-11 and out-shot them 11-5 in 5-on-5 play when Mueller and Moore were on the ice. Moore was careful about his tendency to get lost on defense and go too aggressive on pinches. Mueller had a very tidy game as a defenseman. It’s great that he’s coming into his own as the postseason approaches. I still think Damon Severson needs to play, but Mueller deserves some credit for more than just putting James van Reimsdyk (he played tonight, I assure you) on his wallet in the third period.
While they did not score, Travis Zajac, Stefan Noesen, and Blake Coleman all played rather well in the run of play. These three put in a lot of hard working shifts and they helped out to ensure Toronto would strike again with a second goal. They combined with nine of the team’s 37 shots on net tonight. When they were on the ice, they often saw Matthews, Nylander, and Zach Hyman. The Zajac line won their match-up as the Devils out-attempted and out-shot the Leafs’ most dangerous line. Matthews is a frighteningly good player but the Devils did well to limit him to one shot all night long. Noesen deserves an extra sentence for putting up four shots on net and getting tripped up by Marner (not Jake Gardiner) towards the end of the game to help the Devils out.
If Only: Michael Grabner put a sweet move on Morgan Reilly int he second period. He beat him for a quick one-on-one with the goalie. He was stuffed by Andersen on a low shot. If only he had a move for the goalie too.
Fan Appreciation Night - Bracelets: Fans who attended received a controllable-flashing red plastic bracelet. This looked cool during the pregame ceremony when the Rock is dark. This was not so cool during the game as the team did not do much with them other than give a prize to the special lucky few who had a yellow (or “golden”) bracelet. It was also not cool how fans threw them on the ice in celebration after the Devils won. Don’t throw hard plastic things, people.
I will segue into the crowd itself. The Rock was an announced sellout and I’d say 95% of the seats were filled. There were some Toronto fans but the crowd was heavily pro-Devil. There was a real feeling of energy from the Devils fans as everyone knew the importance of this game, the importance of the Boston-Florida game (until NJ won), and the result. The crowd was on its feet for the final minute of play, hoping New Jersey would hold on. The elation was real.
Around the Division: The Devils made the playoffs! But other games do matter as they will determine where the Devils will finish and who they play in the postseason.
First, Florida did beat Boston. This is good news for Tampa Bay, who remains tied with Boston in points but leads by one in ROW for the Atlantic Division lead. Florida is still alive and will be cheering very hard against the opponents of the Second Rate Rivals.
Second, Philadelphia did beat Carolina in regulation. The Devils also won, so Philly remains one point behind the Devils. There is a possibility that the Flyers crash out of the playoffs at the end. It will require Florida to win their next two games with at least one of those wins coming in regulation or overtime and Philadelphia losing their last game in regulation. The result would be Devils in Wild Card 1, Florida in Wild Card 2, and Philly fans pretending the Flyers do not matter because the Eagles won the Super Bowl or somesuch. It’s a tough scenario, but it’s there. Philly has one game left: at Our Hated Rivals. Florida has two: home to Buffalo and on the road at Boston.
Third, Pittsburgh-Columbus annoyingly went to overtime. Pittsburgh won it so they will finish either second, third, or fourth in the Metropolitan. Columbus is still vulnerable to falling; they are tied with the Devils in points (97) and ROW (39) but are ahead due to the season series. Pittsburgh plays Ottawa tomorrow to wrap up their season; Columbus has Nashville in Nashville in their season ender on Saturday.
For those who do want the Devils to reach the highest point possible, then you’re going to want New Jersey to beat Washington in Washington (good luck), Pittsburgh to lose to Ottawa tomorrow, and Columbus to lose at Nashville in regulation on Saturday. If you want the Devils to avoid slipping, then you want Our Hated Rivals to beat Philly in regulation no matter what the Devils do. If you want Wild Card #2 to avoid Boston entirely, then cheer on Tampa Bay and Boston’s opponents (Ottawa and Florida).
Personally, I do not care who the Devils play in the postseason; I am happy that they are going to be in it at all. The Devils will be at Washington on Saturday and whatever they do is fine. I just don’t want any injuries or anything stupid happening. The larger point of this section is that the very end of the season does carry some meaning for the Devils and the teams closest to them in the standings. The larger lesson is that every game matters. The largest message is that the Devils are finally in the postseason and do not need other teams to try and usually fail to be bros anymore.
Ended: Hall’s point streak has ended but that’s all good because he’s going to the playoffs. He’s still the Superstar.
One Last Thought: Pavel Zacha was right. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow at 11 AM ET.
Your Take: The Devils won the final Most Important Game of the Season of the Night of the 2017-18 regular season. They edged the Maple Leafs, 2-1. What did you think of the performance? Result aside, did the Devils play well in your eyes? Who on the Devils did you think had a great game? Who could have done better? Don’t you love the word ‘playoffs?’ (I do!) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this important win in the comments.
Thanks to Ryan for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.