The Devils will be playing in the postseason again in 2023. They cruised to a playoff spot, clinching with weeks to go in a season where their fans were largely just hoping they’d be in the vicinity of the playoff bubble, come late March. Given this state of affairs, the hockey has been generally low stress for much of the past month or so. The Devils have only really had seeding to worry about over the past few weeks, with Thursday’s win over the charging Rangers to keep a firm grip on second-place in the Metropolitan Division being the most high-pressure scenario faced. Even in that game though, the only thing really on the line was who gets an extra home game in the first round, as the Devils have seemingly been on a collision course with their cross-Hudson rivals for months now.
Barring a major shift, the Metro appears to be settling into the Carolina-New Jersey-Rangers ordering that has pretty much been the status quo for three months now. Despite a number of ebbs and flows for each of the teams in the top three and a couple of virtual ties that came and went, the last time the official ordering of the first three spots in the Metro was different from the current arrangement was January 9th, when the Capitals were one point ahead of the Rangers for third place in the division. The Devils haven’t spent a day out of second place since December 19th. And with the Devils now three points back of Carolina and three points ahead of the Rangers with five games left on the schedule (six for Carolina), things are likely to remain as they are. In that sense, there’s been remarkably little drama for the Devils in their return to the playoffs.
Things will change abruptly when the postseason actually begins. The Devils have participated in five playoff games since the end of Barack Obama’s first term as president. The five games they did happen to be a part of were in 2018 as a massive underdog with very little to lose. The crowds in the two home games the Devils had in that series against Tampa were incredibly hyped up, given the previous five failed seasons, but the Devils were a team without a lot to lose in that series as heavy underdogs. Even in that context, emotions were incredibly high, but the stress will be exponentially higher with a Devils team that has played its way into much higher expectations and likely facing off against its fiercest rival.
Things have changed a lot since the Devils’ last deep postseason run in 2012, and they’ve even changed a substantial amount since the five-game cameo they made in 2018. No players remain on the Devils from the 2012 roster and, by my count, only two are even still playing in the NHL (Henrique and Parise). Even when just going back to 2018, only a scarce few remain from that team (Hischier, Bratt, Severson, and Wood). Of that remaining 2018 group, two were rookies at the time and only Severson had over 100 games of NHL experience entering that season. Given this, 2018 feels like a distant memory and 2012 feels like it borders on ancient history.
On a personal level, in 2012, I had been dating my now-wife for less than a year at the time. We’ve now been married for close to eight years and have two kids. In my youth, I was a well-seasoned playoff-hockey-watcher when it came to the Devils. Nowadays, I have a lot of extra things to worry about that aren’t Devils hockey and the spectre of fitting the ordeal of a Devils playoff game into the kids’ bedtime routine is a daunting one. My emotional and functional bandwidth is a lot more crowded here in 2023 than it once was, and the Devils’ failure to be a competitive hockey team for most of the past decade has ill prepared me for what lies ahead. In 2012, I ran screaming through a bar in Northern Virginia filled with strangers when Henrique ended the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Devils get that far this time around, I’m not positive I’ll still be able to stand.
Playoff hockey when your team is participating is like no other sensation in sports. Sixty (or more) minutes of absolute tension, with bouts of panic every time a shot ventures near your goalie and exasperation every time the opposing goalie makes a save. The highs are extraordinarily high and the lows are often as crushing as they get. Devils fans who have been around long enough to remember the Cup years can attest that reaching the mountaintop is a feeling that is tough to replicate (though I’ll never forgive the PHWA for giving J-S Giguere the Conn Smythe to step on the celebration in 2003).
The Devils barely participating in any playoff hockey for the past decade has led to me watching a lot of non-Devils playoff hockey and observing all the other fans in the torture chamber (especially when it comes to overtime playoff hockey). It’s certainly amusing watching other fans squirm in that position, but that amusement quickly devolves into envy when you see the feeling that playoff glory can provide. Glory has certainly been in short supply for the Devils in the past ten years.
As far as the Devils’ regular season goes, it’s pretty much all over but the waiting at this point. We all have about two weeks to prepare ourselves for what comes next, and then... the stress arrives. I’m not positive I can still handle the playoff pressure cooker. And hell, if something good does happen, there is a nonzero chance I will injure myself jumping around because kids apparently make you age in dog years. But despite my ill-preparedness, my dread of what is coming is surpassed only by my intense excitement. This is a really good hockey team that has the ability to do awesome things. They may not do any awesome things, as is the nature of playoff hockey, but the fact that the possibility finally once again exists is a wonderful feeling.
A bit of a coda here: The Devils have played 2048 regular season games since I started writing for this blog ten years and a day ago. They, of course, have a single playoff victory to go with those 2048 mostly futile efforts. I signed off that first article ten years ago with the following line: “Here’s hoping we’ll see some winning hockey return to this site some time soon. Go Devils.” Oh, 2013 Mike...you sweet summer child. The Devils were less than 40 regular season games removed from a Stanley Cup Final when that piece was written. I want to warn him, he knows nothing of the horrors which lie ahead. At least now I could tell him that there is an eventual end to the imminent rebuild awaiting him.
“Mike, winning hockey will return. And it will happen ‘soon,’ as long as we are referencing a geologic timeline. Hang in there, buddy. Go Devils.”