NEWARK–In sticking with the annual sports sensation that is March Madness, the Devils, a proverbial “underdog,” defeated the first-place Lightning for the third time this season.
Saturday’s 2-1 final just might have been a first-round playoff series preview featuring the second wild card team in the Devils up against the Lightning, a team that’s already clinched a playoff berth and has tallied 30 more points. Seldom do point totals mean anything in the postseason though, and seldom have they meant anything when these two teams meet at all.
The Devils, who have struggled lately with their starts, opened the scoring late in the first period when Nico Hischier cleaned up in front of the net to rebound home a Will Butcher shot from the point.
Kyle Palmieri’s laser-like wrist shot 10:59 into the second doubled the lead while Taylor Hall, owner of the secondary assist netted his 49th helper and 82nd point on the season–just four assists shy of his career-high (53).
The Lightning, who twice spoiled power play opportunities by taking minors of their own, cashed in on their only full man-advantage of the contest with an Ondrej Palat tally to put the heat on the Devils, who grinded out the final 15 minutes of the third period to hang on for the win and another important pair of points.
“We did a good job in the first period of coming right out and skating,” captain Andy Greene said. “Obviously our starts the last couple games throughout the road trip weren’t great. I think we came right out with a lot of energy and the building was great.”
The Lightning, who entered Saturday with 14 goals in their last three games, were limited to a single goal. And while they made a strong push in the third, Devils’ goalie, Keith Kinkaid stood his ground–stopping 35 of 36 shots faced.
“I just wanted to keep battling,” Kinkaid said. “Those are playoff-type games. You got to find those ways to win 2-1. Credit to the guys at the end blocking shots and sacrificing the body.
“When we’re committed like that, we give a lot of teams a hard challenge. It shows every time we play like that. We know how we got to play and we know how we got to finish that way the rest of the season.”
Kinkaid made his second start in back-to-back games and his seventh-straight appearance eclipsing the 20-win mark for the first time in his career. Cory Schneider, whose only appearance on the six-game road trip lasted 30:31 after allowing four goals on 14 shots, served as the backup. Head coach John Hynes opting to go with the hot hand and the netminder that’s giving the team the best chance to win.
“He’s been a difference-maker, he’s come in and played well,” Hynes said. “He’s made key saves at key times, he’s obviously won quite a few games and he’s been a real important factor in us remaining really competitive in the playoff race. We’d like to see him continue that at that level.”
Following Saturday, that season now has just seven games remaining for the Devils, who are playoff-hopeful, but far from guaranteed. The 48-hour span including wins over the Penguins on Friday in overtime coupled with Saturday’s W doesn’t hurt. But before the success versus potential playoff opponents seeps in, the Devils have to help themselves. To do that, they’ll need to collect as many points as they can with the just-outside, Panthers breathing down their neck with two games in hand.
“There’s a lot that still has to happen still,” Greene said. “We just got to focus on our game and the last two weeks and just take it a game at a time. I know it’s cliche, but it really is. We just got to sit there and focus on what we can control and see what happens on April 8th. Hopefully we’ve done enough good things and given ourselves the best chance that we’re looking in.”
One reason the Devils remain in the hunt is an 11-10-2 record versus the seven teams above them in the Eastern Conference standings, including a 6-0-0 against the Penguins and Lightning, two of the league’s high-powered offenses.
“They like to play a similar game to us,” Greene said about the two most recent opponents. “We get up and down the ice pretty quick and we play a fast game. We’re hard to beat, we manage the puck—we play the right way and give ourselves a chance to win.”
“You know that they’re going to get looks regardless of how well you play defensively,” Hynes said. “They’re just going to turn plays at certain times and then you’re going to need to get big saves. We got big saves both times from (Kinkaid). Collectively, when they made surges and pushes, we did a good job managing those where it didn’t get in. We also had surges where we were able to find ways to score goals and put the other team on their heels.”
In winning on Saturday, the Devils improved to 39-28-8 on the season–only three points separated from outside the playoff picture, but also within three points of a divisional seed. In short, the more points equal the more paths to ending the franchise’s five-year playoff drought and perhaps bringing some of these regular season “upsets” to life in the postseason.