Outside of Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, there has not been much memories to enjoy at Prudential Center until Thursday night.
The Devils ended a six-year playoff drought by clinching a playoff berth after a 2-1 victory over Stanley Cup contender Toronto Maple Leafs on Fan Appreciation Night. It was the best moment in the 11-year-old arena since Adam Henrique scored the game-winning goal that would eliminate the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals and have them advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, which was the last time they made the playoffs.
It was long time coming for the Devils. Making the playoffs becomes a big deal after not participating in recent years as a result of this team rebuilding from the ground up. After decades of making the playoffs and watching the franchise win three Stanley Cups, Devils fans have taken it for granted. It’s a feeling Yankees fans have with their baseball team.
For the Devils to make the playoffs without anyone expecting it, it makes this season enjoyable and rewarding. They were going to improve since they couldn’t be any worse than the 28-40-14 team from last season. But no one thought the Devils would be transformed into a playoff team. Not even the Devils players, Devils coaching staff and Devils front office. The hope was this team made enough strides where they can contend for a playoff spot next year.
Not only they made the playoffs, but they can win a playoff round or two, Maybe they can play all the way to May to early June. They are good enough to go far with a great offense, efficient defense, good goaltending and excellent coaching. There are not many overwhelming favorites out there in the Eastern Conference, so the Devils have a shot to go to the Stanley Cup Final.
In playoff hockey, anyone can beat anyone. That’s what makes Stanley Cup Playoffs so unique. It comes down to one hot goaltender being the difference maker, and the Devils have that in Keith Kinkaid.
Kinkaid stepped up with the opportunity to start after Cory Schneider missed 16 games because of a groin injury between Jan. 25 and Feb. 27. He continued to play well after Schneider came off the injury list and struggled. With the Devils fighting for a playoff spot, third-year Devils head coach John Hynes decided to play with the hot hand in Kinkaid rather than let Schneider work out the kinks.
Kinkaid validated Hynes’ decision by going 16-3-1 in his last 20 starts, which included back-to-back starts few weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning on March 23 and 24. He has played his way to the playoffs by keeping the Devils afloat.
Talk about the impact Taylor Hall, Patrick Maroon and Sami Vatanen have had for the Devils in March, but the Devils don’t make the playoffs if Kinkaid does not step up when Schneider was on the injury list. With Schneider nursing a groin injury, there was no guarantee the Devils backup goaltender would be effective when he came back and that turned out to be true, so the Devils needed Kinkaid to playing well, even if their starting goaltender came back.
The best way anyone can say about the Devils is they are resilient. Nothing fazes them whether it was slumps, funks or deficits. They keep playing, and they find ways to win. There is certain toughness about that team that made them a playoff team, and that’s why the Devils could pose problems for a high-seeded team like the Lightning.
Here are couple of evidences the Devils had that tangible that made them a playoff team this year: After the Devils trailed the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on Nov. 12, they scored five unanswered goals to take a 6-4 lead, and they eventually won the game 7-5. To do this in a hostile environment was impressive since it’s tough for any team to do well at the United Center. In hindsight, the Blackhawks were bad this year, but at the time, they were playing decent hockey where that win was a big deal.
Another one came on Feb. 13 when Hall tied the game at 4 against the Philadelphia Flyers with two minutes to go in regulation, which set the stage for him to score a game-winning goal in overtime. That was the game that propel the Devils to the playoffs. They lost eight of 11 prior to that game, and they were close to fading out of the playoff picture, so had they lost that game, it could have been the end for this plucky team. Instead, the Devils parlayed that win by winning four in a row and six of eight that helped them get a playoff berth.
The players deserve credit, but let’s not discount the job third-year Devils head coach John Hynes has done. His leadership has been impressive, which he has kept an even-keel attitude as in he has not been too high on wins and too low on losses. It’s a trait that is important for a young team that needs guidance, and Hynes provided that. He also has gotten the most out of his young players such as Hall, Will Butcher, Miles Wood, Nico Hischier, and he has done a good job integrating the veterans such as Ben Lovejoy, Kyle Palmieri and Brian Boyle with the young players.
Goaltending, resilience and coaching have one thing in common. It embodies leadership as in stepping up when the Devils needed it the most.
That’s why the Devils earned the right to play in the playoffs next week.