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And then there was one: Devils’ sweet run goes bitter

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Do you know a New Jersey Devils fan? If so, you should probably give him or her a hug right now. (Yes, even if you root for the New York Rangers.)

The bitter taste of the Devils’ 6-1 Game 6 loss to the Los Angeles Kings probably won’t subside for some time – few endings like these dissolve quickly – yet the big picture ended up looking a lot sweeter than most people expected.

Sure, New Jersey was about as good as a sixth seed could be, all things considered. They finished with 102 points this season, which would have placed them right behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (103) and Boston Bruins (102, with more regulation/OT wins) as the fifth seed if it wasn’t based on division titles. Still, they sported plenty of question marks going into the postseason and just about everything worked out.

Until they met the Kings, of course.

What happened?

Whether you attribute it to injuries (Ilya Kovalchuk seemed banged up, for one), the Devils’ shortcomings or the Kings’ dominance, New Jersey just couldn’t score consistently against Los Angeles. A power play that scored 12 goals through the first three rounds was downright befuddled by an outstanding Kings’ PK. Zach Parise struggled just as much as Kovalchuk to put points on the board while Martin Brodeur was surprisingly strong – but not strong enough – to top the Kings.

The Devils scored just eight goals in six games in the series.

Who takes the blame?

As unfair as it might be, many will fit Steve Bernier with the goat horns. His controversial hit earned an ejection and resulted in three Kings power play goals, essentially ending Game 6 – and the series – before the first period was even over.

Of course, that’s an overly simplistic approach. As many pointed out, a five-minute major doesn’t necessarily justify such a porous PK showing. (Overall, the Devils’ penalty kill was strong, but that might make it hurt a little bit more.)

If anything, Bernier takes the heat off of larger concerns. The Devils lost their cool and also lost their offensive touch. Bernier’s the easy scapegoat and most will see it that way, yet an ineffective offense and a dominant Kings team did the Devils in.

What will they do about it?

In case you haven’t noticed the deluge of “Where will Parise go?” articles, the Devils’ biggest off-season question isn’t entirely in “their hands.” That being said, making a deep postseason run had to at least improve New Jersey’s chances of retaining its captain and most important player. GM Lou Lamoriello’s off-season report card likely hinges on Parise’s decision.

That’s far from Lamoriello’s only summer chore, however. He has other noteworthy free agent calls to make, with the most prominent one being Brodeur. This post goes into painstaking detail to cover the many decisions the Devils face in this off-season, as the vast majority of New Jersey’s most valuable players (not named Kovalchuk) either need a new deal this summer or in 2013.

Lamoriello faces a tough bigger picture question among many individual conundrums, then: does this group have more deep runs in them or was this just a (mostly) happy accident?

More

And then there were 15: Is Detroit’s dynasty on its last legs?

And then there were 14: Sharks come out flat in playoffs

And then there were 13: Powerhouse Pens fall flat

And then there were 12: Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks bounced in Round 1

And then there were 11: Another first-round exit for Blackhawks

And then there were 10: Bruins run out of Game 7 magic

And then there were nine: Senators out, but future’s bright

And then there were eight: Panthers go out swinging

And then there were seven: Blues swept out of Western Conference semifinal

And then there were six: So much for Nashville’s mid-season reload

And then there were five: New-look Flyers produce familiar results

And then there were four: Capitals fall just short in Game 7

And then there were three: Coyotes’ run falls short

And then there were two: Rangers’ gas tank hits empty

Clutter-bucks: Isles sign energy guy to five-year, $17.5 million extension

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 03:  Cal Clutterbuck #15 of the New York Islanders scores his second goal of the game at 9:53 of the third period against the Dallas Stars at the Barclays Center on January 3, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  The Islanders defeated the Stars 6-5. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The New York Islanders made a splash on Friday, signing veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck to a five-year, $17.5 million extension — one that carries a $3.5 million average annual cap hit through 2023.

Clutterbuck, 29, has two goals and nine points through 25 games this year, while averaging 15:26 TOI per night (his highest average since joining the Isles four years ago). As per usual, he leads the club in hits — one of the staples of his game — and serves as one of the club’s alternate captains.

This new contract represents a nice raise for the former Minnesota Wild man. His last contract, set to expire in July, was of the four-year, $11 million variety, and carried a $2.75 million cap hit.

This contract also resembles the one GM Garth Snow gave another of the club’s role forwards. This summer, Casey Cizikas signed a five-year, $16.75 million extension — one with a $3.35 million hit — despite the fact he’d never scored more than 30 points in a season, or averaged more than 14 minutes of ice time.

This style of spending — along with splashes made for free agent disappointments Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd — is sure to raise some questions. The Isles opted not to spend that money on retaining two of their key players from a season ago, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, and the club has struggled to find its form through the first quarter of this year.

Bettman: Salary cap could stay the same for next season

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman unveils the League's Centennial celebration plans for 2017 during a press conference at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Don’t expect a big jump in next season’s salary cap.

“We’re not going to give out any numbers now,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday, per Yahoo Sports. “The cap could range from where it is now to a couple or so million up, but we’re all going to have to focus on what makes the most sense moving forward.”

The salary cap only went up slightly for the current season, from $71.4 million to $73 million. The only slight increase was due to the lower Canadian dollar, which negatively impacted last season’s league revenues by “$100 or 200 million,” Bettman said earlier this year.

The loonie has been holding relatively steady for around half a year. It’s currently worth $0.76 USD and has been helped by the recent oil rally.

A flat salary cap would be bad news for big spenders like the Chicago Blackhawks, who still need to get Artemi Panarin signed to an extension. The Los Angeles Kings could also be forced to make some tough decisions, as they’ve got Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson in need of new deals. Ditto for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have key RFAs in Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Conor Sheary.

Related: Trades galore? McPhee expecting ‘a massive player redistribution before the expansion draft’

A few ‘bad decisions’ have been costing Lundqvist

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) reacts after giving up a goal to Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016, in New York. The Penguins won 6-1. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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Henrik Lundqvist has set such a high bar that his 12-8-1 record with a .912 save percentage is cause for great concern these days in New York.

That his backup, Antti Raanta, is 6-1-0 with a .932 save percentage only contributes to that concern, because if Raanta can manage those numbers, what’s Lundqvist’s excuse?

“I feel like I’m tracking the puck well, moving well,” Lundqvist told the Daily News. “It just comes down to some bad decisions at times that cost me.”

Indeed, December has not started well for The King. He’s allowed 10 goals in three starts for a save percentage of .894. In Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Islanders, his decision to poke check a loose puck led to the winning goal by Andrew Ladd.

But while this month has been a struggle, it should be noted that Lundqvist was mostly excellent in November. He finished with a .925 save percentage, including that 40-save victory on Black Friday in Philadelphia.

Which is to say, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Since 2008-09, Lundqvist has not finished a season with a save percentage below .920, and that is a remarkable achievement.

Raanta was solid again last night in Winnipeg, where the Rangers beat the Jets, 2-1. A starting goalie for tonight’s game in Chicago has not yet been announced, but Lundqvist is a good bet.

Top 10 career save percentages among goalies with at least 300 NHL starts

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Jets send talented rookie Connor to AHL

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23:  Goalie Cam Talbot #33 of the Edmonton Oilers pushes Kyle Connor #81 of the Winnipeg Jets  during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jason Halstead /Getty Images)
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Kyle Connor is on his way to the minors.

On Friday, Winnipeg announced that Connor — the former Michigan Wolverines star taken 17th overall in 2015 — has been assigned to the club’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose.

Connor, 19, had just one goal and four points through 19 games this year, struggling to adjust to life at the professional level.

He’d been a healthy scratch for each of the Jets’ last six games and, prior to that, missed five games with an upper-body injury after getting nailed into the boards by L.A. forward Kyle Clifford.

The Jets are getting healthy up front, which further explains why Connor is on his way to the Moose. Bryan Little and Mathieu Perreault both recently returned from injury.