For the New Jersey Devils, the twenty-four hours from Friday, March 20 to Saturday, March 21 reflected the team’s strengths and deficiencies and may well have put an end to their slim 2015 playoff hopes.
It started Friday night in Buffalo at the First Niagara Center when the Devils took on the Sabres. The Devils knew where they were in the standings and that games and points were at a premium. The Sabres, currently last overall in the NHL, would have to be beaten in order for New Jersey to gain ground on the Boston Bruins for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. Beating a weaker team such as Buffalo has not been easy for the Devils this season, thinking back to the game against Edmonton in February at Prudential Center. Indeed, the Devils had not won a game in Buffalo since about 2013. They were looking to sweep the season series with the Sabres (the other two previous games having been played at Newark).
What the Devils got was a great game from Steve Bernier (two goals); Jordin Tootoo, who scored a highlight reel goal, played well; and Keith Kinkaid, who started in place of Cory Schneider, also continued the recent trend of great Devils goaltending. Adam Henrique and Scott Gomez also had two assists on the night.
After a scoreless first frame, Steve Bernier put the Devils on the board at 9:08 of the second when Henrique’s outlet pass sprung Scott Gomez who fed Bernier on the ensuing two-on-one the other way. It was Bernier’s 99th career goal, one away from a milestone. That milestone goal would come about four or five minutes later at 13:53 when the puck was freed up along the boards, moved by Bernier to Henrique on the far boards, who quickly fed it to Bernier in the slot. Bernier deposited the puck behind Buffalo goaltender Anders Lindback to give the Devils a 2-0 lead. Gomez had the secondary assist on Bernier’s 100th career goal.
In the third period, Tootoo would score on a magnificent individual effort for the Devils. With the faceoff deep in the Devils zone, the draw was won by Buffalo and moved back to Mike Weber at the left point. Weber’s shot was blocked by Tootoo who then took possession, turned on the jets and started his rush up the ice. With only Weber to beat, Tootoo slid the puck under Weber’s stick and moved to his forehand, beating Lindback on his glove side. The goal was unassisted and the Devils now had a 3-0 lead.
Buffalo’s Matt Moulson would score his 11th of the season at 11:41 of the third on the power play to break Kinkaid’s shutout bid. Tyler Ennis had the primary assist, while former Devil Brian Gionta had the secondary assist. Brian’s younger brother Stephen Gionta also played a good game for the Devils. With all of that, the Devils came out on top with a much-needed victory in Western New York.
The next night, the Devils would return home to play another New York-based team, the playoff-bound Islanders. The Devils were coming in having won three straight while the Isles were losers of four straight coming into the Saturday night showdown at The Rock.
And as well as they played in Buffalo, the Devils, despite the outcome, retained that top level of play in this game. There was only one problem: the Islanders were getting back their brick wall in the crease on this night. Jaroslav Halak made his return and was superb. He made 26 saves in the Islanders’ shutout win over the Devils.
The Isles got the scoring started off when Ryan Strome scored from Nikolay Kulemin at 7:37. The game remained 1-0 through the second and for more than half of the third. At 10:15 of the third, Stephen Gionta took an interference call while trying to break up a Matt Martin scoring chance and the Islanders went on the power play. The Devils actually killed the man advantage off, but at 12:19, just as Gionta was stepping back on the ice out of the penalty box, Travis Hamonic scored from Strome and Brock Nelson to give the Isles a 2-0 lead. Kyle Okposo would add an empty netter (with assists from John Tavares – which ended a point drought for him – and Hamonic) to give the Islanders a 3-0 win.
The Devils had many chances all throughout the night and kept the pressure on in the Islanders zone most of the night. Perhaps the play that summed up the night for New Jersey was when Travis Zajac hit the post with a wide open net when the game was still 1-0. The Devils just could not solve Halak. Meanwhile, Cory Schneider, back in the net after the night off in Buffalo, played well enough to be named the night’s third star by attending media. He made 27 saves and, again, kept the Devils in a game they had no business being in. Cory is a top tier goaltender in the NHL and will give the Devils a great foundation for years to come. The game was fast paced and the Devils kept up with the sometimes fire wagon hockey style of the Islanders. Only two penalties were called all night, the aforementioned Gionta penalty and a Travis Hamonic hooking call that put the Devils up a man early in the second.
While losing to a team that is better than them at this point is not the end of the world, it may spell the end of the Devils playoff chances. With Ottawa now gaining ground in the playoff race, the Devils and Flyers are being left in the dust, while Florida (with 80 points) is fading fast. The Senators are only a point behind Boston (as of March 22nd) and are making a push. The Devils are not officially eliminated yet, but the loss to the Isles did more harm to their chances.
The time is now to look to the future for the Devils and start preparing for the Draft and for next season. While the Devils put up a valiant effort, and never gave up, this season is pretty much a write-off and the team needs to start preparing to make a run in 2015-16.