Devils facing ‘big challenge’ trying to clinch playoff spot vs. Maple Leafs

AP Images
2 Comments

NEWARK — The New Jersey Devils saw all of your preseason predictions placing them in last place (*raises hand*). That helped fuel this season’s mantra — New Jersey Devils vs. Everybody — that they continue to carry into Game 81 — a game where they can clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

While you’d think the “Us Against the World” mentality would have subsided a bit as the Devils played their way into the Eastern Conference playoff picture and Taylor Hall played his way into the MVP conversation, but it’s business as usual as they look to extend their season beyond this weekend.

“It hasn’t changed. It’s just keep doing the same thing,” head coach John Hynes said after Thursday’s morning skate. “It’s not about that. We have to make sure that we’re ready to play a game tonight and get to our identity and really test ourselves against a real good team.”

[NHL Playoff Push: East field could be set; Predators eyeing Presidents’ Trophy]

As the Devils began to exceed expectations, the tenseness of the playoff race saw them slip up in January where they went 3-6-2 as the calendar turned to 2018. The team had a talk, and the overriding message to the players was to start having fun and not allow the pressure to get to them.

“It just seemed to be from the start of training camp we we’re all in on what we had to do,” said Hall. “Last year was a bit of an eye opener for all of us here at the organization, not just the players, but the coaching staff. We all kind of took a step back and figured out what we had to do better.”

Things began to change in the middle of February, as did Hall’s season, which went from strong to Hart Trophy-worthy.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The 26-year-old Hall has never played postseason hockey, and following years of disappointment in Edmonton, Thursday night that can all change.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s what we wanted at the start of the season,” said Hall. “Coming into the season, if you were to tell me that Game 81 we’d be playing in a clinching game, I would have taken that in a heartbeat. It’s really exciting for our group, for our organization and for our fanbase. It’s been a fun ride so far this year and the improvements that we’ve made as a team, and you’re seeing individuals improve over the course of a year as well, it’s really exciting for our franchise.”

From Hall to the rookie campaigns of Will Butcher and Nico Hischier to Keith Kinkaid saving the season after Cory Schneider’s injury to Brian Boyle’s come back from an early-season cancer diagnosis, there are many different stories to pick from the 2017-18 Devils season. Now, for the first time since they went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, they’re on the verge of being back in the playoffs, a place they feel they deserve to be.

“We’ve worked hard. We’ve earned our spot so far,” said Boyle. “But nothing’s done yet. We’ve got a really good team that’s coming in here and we have a big challenge tonight.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.