The New Jersey Devils (35-36-5) won’t be in the playoffs this season, an unfamiliar feeling for a franchise who hasn’t missed the postseason in 15 straight years. Their season, however, is not all lost.
The Devils will once again try to reach NHL-.500 as they face the struggling Philadelphia Flyers (46-21-10) tonight at the Prudential Center.
New Jersey went on a torrid second half run which began against their rivals. In that game, a 2-1 loss on January 8, the Devils saw Martin Brodeur return to form and found their footing defensively. After the loss, they went on an epic 23-3-2 tear, getting within six points of a playoff spot.
The wheels, however, came off for the Devils. Their recent 2-4-1 slide put them 12th in the conference, 12 points behind both the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers for the eighth seed. The deficit assured New Jersey that they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
Despite being out of the playoffs, Devils coach Jacques Lemaire refused to accept a spoiler role heading into tonight’s match-up against their Atlantic Division rival.
“Even if you get point and let’s say a team goes ahead of the team that you beat because you beat them, it doesn’t do anything to us really,” Lemaire told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “Not to me anyway. I think you’ve got to play for your own self. You’ve got to play for your team and nothing else.”
The Flyers have struggled of late, losing three of their last five games. Their 102 points have them holding a tenuous, one-point lead over the Washington Capitals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Since defenseman Chris Pronger broke his right hand on March 8, Philadelphia has gone just 5-2-4. But they enter New Jersey carrying a 25-9-4 road record and are undefeated in their last six road games.
With a win tonight, New Jersey would even the season series. The Flyers currently hold a 3-2-0 advantage over the Devils, and have won nine of the last 12 meetings. New Jersey won the last meeting, 3-1, with Patrik Elias scoring two goals.
Johan Hedberg will start tonight’s game. The backup goalie started all five games against the Flyers this season, going 2-3-0 with a 2.80 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. It’s his first start since a 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 25.
Hedberg acknowledged that it won’t be an easy game.
“There is no easy nights anyway,” he told Gulitti. “It’s been proven all year. If you’re not sharp one night, any team will beat you. But they’re a good team. I’ve seen them quite a few times this year. They’re a lot of cycling around the net, a lot of crashing around the net. Pretty intense.”
Anton Volchenkov will also return to the lineup. The defenseman missed two games after sustaining a lower-body injury during last Friday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.