The Devils ended the season a high note, defeating the Maple Leafs 5-1 at home in a game that featured a small sample of the future and paid homage to one of the franchise’s most memorable players.
With losses in six of their last seven and their three prior home games, New Jersey entered Saturday looking to give their fans a send-off after failing to make the post-season for the fourth-consecutive season.
Toronto, meanwhile, would clinch last place with a loss, thus positioning themselves with the best odds of landing the first overall pick at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, the results of which will be announced on April 30.
Despite the implications of that, the Maple Leafs opened up the scoring in the first 2:53 of the game. P.A. Parenteau’s rebound beat Cory Schneider early. Parenteau finished the season as the Leafs only 20-goal scorer.
The Devils would respond before the end of the first period though as Devante Smith-Pelly scored off an offensive zone faceoff to even the game at 9:10 of the first period. Smith-Pelly’s goal was his first in eight games and came while on a new line which included Patrik Elias and rookie, Pavel Zacha. Zacha earned the goal’s only assist–his first NHL point.
Two Devils were in striking distance for achieving 30 goals for the first time in their careers: Adam Henrique, who entered the contest two goals shy of 30 and Kyle Palmieri, one goal shy.
Henrique would open the scoring .58 seconds into the second period to pull within one. The goal saw Elias earn an assist, much to the delight of fans, who like him, pondered the possibility that Saturday might be his last as a Devil, and potentially, as an NHL player.
Henrique would add another in the second period to reach the 30-mark for the first time in his career and the first time a Devil has achieved the mark since 2011-12 when Ilya Kovalchuk (37), Zach Parise (31) and David Clarkson (30) all reached the distance. The goal also saw Tuomo Ruutu earn his first point (the primary assist) in over a year. Ruutu, a pending unrestricted free agent is just 33 but might also be pondering the end of his NHL career.
Ahead by two late in the third, Mike Babcock pulled Leafs’ goaltender Garret Sparks for the extra-attacker. After searching for an opportunity all night, Palmieri finally had his chance and he didn’t miss. His empty-net goal at 17:04 in the third gave him his 30th on the season for the first time, a small consolation to missing his first post-season in his NHL career. The goal also saw Elias and Zacha add assists. Career number 1,024 and 2, respectively.
Adding some final dramatics to the game, head coach John Hynes put the Devils’ all-time leader in goals, assists and points (among a number of other categories) for the final minute of play and with 15.9 seconds remaining he was fed in front of the net by Palmieri. His second goal of an injury-plagued season and third point on the night earned him first star honors in a fitting way to close out a season of highs and lows.
Schneider stopped 19 of 20 shots faced as the Devils outshot the Leafs 36-20, a 16 point disparity, the most over an opponent since Nov. 14, when they outshot the Penguins 37-21 in a 4-0 home win.
One of the reasons for the uncharacteristic shot difference was six separate power play opportunities. Despite the chances, though, the Devils went empty on all six. They finish the season with a 19.9 power play percentage, among the top-10 in the NHL this season.
Zacha made his presence felt in his NHL debut adding two assists, a plus-4 rating and three shots on goal in 16:15 of ice time. Miles Wood recorded two shots in just over 13 minutes while Steve Santini was a plus-2 in 14:35 minutes of his debut.
For the Devils, 2015-16 will likely be another forgotten season, left to the archives but it was significant. For the first time in nearly two decades, the team openly and honestly admitted to the concept of a rebuild. Their leading scorer was dealt at the deadline for picks; they sought young, controllable assets (Palmieri, Smith-Pelly) and brought up some of its youth (Blandisi, Mozik, Wedgewood, among others). The process will continue into the off-season and summer as general manager, Ray Shero, and his newly-constructed staff look to add to some of the success from this season. The Devils will hold nine picks at this June’s entry draft in Buffalo, N.Y.
They’ll also have to decide who will be returning to the team next season. Nine players will be unrestricted free agents according to General Fanger. Among them: Patrik Elias, Tumo Ruutu, Jiri Tlusty, Stephen Gionta, Bobby Farnham, Jordin Tootoo, Tyler Kennedy, David Schlemko and David Warsofsky.
The team will also have to deal with some of its restricted free agents, including Kyle Palmieri, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Reid Boucher, who took major steps forward in their development this season. Other RFA’s include: Sergey Kalinin, Jacob Josefson, and Jon Merrill.
It’ll be a busy summer for Devils’ head coach John Hynes, who will serve as the head coach for the United States at the World Championship from May 6 to May 22. He will also serve as an assistant coach behind John Tortorella for the U.S. at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey which will run from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1.