The Miraculous Devils Await Playoff Time

Woe is the opponent destined to meet the magical Devils in the playoffs.

Whether it’s Boston, Washington, Columbus, Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, coach John Hynes‘ New Jersey sextet will be supreme underdogs. But this is one long-shot team that can pull an upset.

“I’m excited,” said left wing Patrick Maroon, architect of both New Jersey goals — one by Pavel Zacha and the other by Miles Wood on Thursday night in the 2-1 playoff-entering decision over Toronto at The Rock.

“Getting into the postseason has been everyone’s goal here in this room.”

It’s the Devils’ first playoff berth since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.

An underdog role suits the Devils just fine because they know how it feels to be earmarked for subterranean depths.

Last September, the esteemed Hockey News — the bible of The Game — consigned the Garden Staters to eighth out of the eight Metro Division teams.

With one more regular season game to play — Saturday night in Washington — how come they’ll be preparing for the playoffs when so many figured they’d be looking to golf?

For one thing, it’s roster depth. Third-liners such as Zacha and Wood registering the tying and winning goals, respectively, are mererly Exhibits A and B.

For another, it’s goaltending depth. Backup Keith Kinkaid blunted 31 shots from a Toronto sextet ranked fourth-best in NHL scoring. Only William Nylander could beat the Farmingville, Long Island native who again was outstanding.

Keith’s record is 7-0-1 in his last eight games.

For a third, it’s miraculous resiliency. I’m talking about a team that launched the season minus its two best centers, Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, yet orbited right to the league’s stratosphere.

[Read More From Stan Fischler]

Finally, they played clutch hockey when it counted most. The win over Toronto extended their point streak to eight games (7-0-1) and first four-game win streak since Feb. 13-18.

“We earned it from Day One,” exulted captain Andy Greene. “We never were out of the playoff race all year. To punch our playoff ticket at home against a very good Leafs team is just awesome.”

Normally, super-scorer Taylor Hall — 93 points on 39 goals and 54 assists — powers the attack, but New Jersey boasts a flock of freshman and sophomores ready to pick up the slack as they did against Toronto.

Rookie and number one Entry Draft choice Nico Hischier has proven to be an arresting find, finding new ways to score and create chances.

New Jersey is the third team from 2013-17 to make the playoffs after selecting the number one pick overall. (2013, MacKinnon, Colorado; 2016, Matthews, Toronto; 2017, Hischier.)

Genius general manager Ray Shero added to his luster when he nabbed ex-Edmontonian Maroon at the trade deadline for a third-round pick. Maroon’s two assists marked his second multi-point game since becoming a Devil.

But one of Shero’s best moves was re-signing Kinkaid last Summer at a time when it appeared that the club would opt for another puck-stopper.

So far, Keith is 26-10-3 and especially sizzling in the homestretch while starter Cory Schneider remains glued to the bench.

But now there are reasons for Coach Hynes to play the rusty Schneider on Saturday night at Washington in the regular-season finale.

[Watch Devils-Capitals Saturday at 6:30 PM on MSG+ & MSG GO. Download Free]

Yet, on the other hand, Kinkaid has the hot hand, the momentum and bursting confidence.

“It’s a dream come true being a part of this playoff team,” enthused Kinkaid. “We’re all in the same pool. This is tremendous for our fans and the organization.”

Virtually forgotten amid the pre-playoff euphoria are the preseason concerns about both the Devils’ offense and defense.

“If depth is an issue up front,” declared The Hockey News, “it’s a crisis on the back end.”

That was before Hobey Baker Award-winner Will Butcher, the rookie, became productive enough to wind up among the top 20 NHL points producers among defenders.

And before Shero added versatile backliner Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for once-popular center Adam Henrique.

The loss of Henrique was erased with unexpectedly excellent red-lighting by former minor leaguers Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons.

Meanwhile, veteran leaders such as Greene and Zajac proved there’s still fuel in their respective tanks.

Hynes: “They are big parts of the fabric of what our team is. They have been with us through the tough times, particularly last year. They’ve worked, they’re loyal and they’ve bought in. They’ve always wanted to do the right things.

“It’s really nice to see high-character guys really care about the front of the jersey — Zajac and Greene are Devils, and they’ve been Devils for a long time. So for them to be a part of this again is really special, and I take a lot of pride in that as a coach.”

Appropriately cautious, Hynes points out that there’s still a game to play. What’s more, its result will have a major role in determining who New Jersey’s opponents will be next week and precisely when their playoffs begin.

But this much is certain; the Devils are in and who’s to deny that another New Jersey hockey miracle will happen again?

“So far,” concluded Devils radio play-by-play man Matt Loughlin, “it’s been magical.”

Make that “miraculous,” a hallmark of underdogs winning the big ones!

[Watch Devils-Capitals Saturday at 6:30 PM on MSG+ & MSG GO. Download Free]