(Kyle Palmieri in front of the Ottawa net on Thursday night – @NJDevils)
For the New Jersey Devils, the push for the playoffs begins now.
The Devils are showing a sense of urgency normally seen in late March.
New Jersey is one of seven teams in the tight battle for the Eastern Conference’s two Wild Card spots.
At the end of play Thursday night, after the Devils beat Ottawa 6-3, New Jersey and Boston have 53 points, Pittsburgh has 51 points, Montreal, Ottawa, and Carolina have 50, and Philadelphia has 48 points. It also may not be too early to rule out Toronto and Buffalo, each with 42 points, and Columbus, with 38 points, from making a late season run.
Of the Devils’ final 34 games, they face the Rangers, Pittsburgh and Washington three times each, Philadelphia twice, Columbus twice and the Islanders once. They also face the elite of the Western Conference, as they face the Dallas Stars on the road, and the Los Angeles Kings twice.
Devils goalie Cory Schneider said of the urgency level of the team, if it’s what you would see about 60 games in, “I think so. I think this is a group that’s kind of learning still. There aren’t too many guys that have gone on deep playoff runs, obviously, the guys from three years ago went to the Finals, but other than that, there’s not a ton of playoff experience in this room. Some of the guys we brought in have a little bit, but we haven’t done a playoff push together, so I think this is something we’ll come to terms with and I like how we’ve responded so far. We’ve stayed in it, we’ve won big games, we’ve had the effort there, again, we’re going to have to make sure we’re on top of these last 30 or so games.”
Schneider said of the playoff hunt, “This league’s crazy. One week, you lose a couple and you’re out of it and everyone’s writing you off and then the next week, you win a few and you’re right back in, everyone’s singing your praises. It’s a volatile part of the schedule. You’re up, you’re down, but again, we’re finding ways to get points and stay in the race. Again, like I said, put a team that was right neck-and-neck with us, push them down a little bit further. It’s fun, it’s fun hockey, it’s fun to play important, meaningful games and I think we’re taking advantage of it right now.”
Devils center Travis Zajac said of their urgency, “It has to come now just because it’s so tight in the playoff race. The coaching staff has done a good job of making us aware of that and, listen, this is a big game for us, big two points to get some separation. You gotta get ahead of it while you can, it’s tough to make up ground the last 20 games, 15 games of the season. We’ve been there before, it’s way too hard, so these are important games.”
On Thursday night, the Devils hosted the Ottawa Senators, whom they led by just one point in the standings, 51 to 50, entering the match.
The Devils showed the type of intensity and urgency against Ottawa Senators that you would see in late March.
The result was a five-goal onslaught in the first period on their wayto a 6-3 victory.
The scoring started with Joe Blandisi tipping in a shot from the blue line by David Schlemko on the power play. It was Blandisi’s first NHL goal in his eighth game with the Devils, and he later notched two assists for his first multi-point game.
Blandisi said of the goal, “There’s been a lot of chances and finally…I definitely couldn’t miss that one. There was an open net there. (Schlemko) made a great play to find my stick, so I pretty much knew when the puck was heading in my direction, I wasn’t going to miss that one.”
Kyle Palmieri scored less than a minute later as he put back his own rebound to make it 2-0.
Palmieri then fired a rocket from the left side on the power play to make it 3-0. At this point, Ottawa called a timeout, basically for Ottawa Head Coach Dave Cameron to rip into his team.
Travis Zajac got into the act, when he was set up by Palmieri and Blandisi to make it 4-0 13:56 in. Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson was pulled here, after allowing four goals on just seven shots.
It concluded with Lee Stempniak grabbing the puck by the Devils blue line and racing down the right side to score and make it 5-0.
This was the first time the Devils scored five goals in a period since January 9, 2011, when they did it in the third period of a 6-3 in against Tampa Bay. This was the first time they scored six goals in a game since October 9, 2014 in a 6-4 win at Philadelphia.
Devils Head Coach John Hynes said of the fast start, “The goals are great, but I think you have to credit the players. Just the way they came out with the energy and the focus level that they had and the execution that we came out in the first period was pretty impressive. So, it was nice to see the group of guys was ready to go like that tonight.”
Two of the goals were on the power play, breaking an 0-19 stretch over their past eight games.
The first four goals originated from the Palmieri-Zajac-Blandisi line. Palmieri had two goals and an assist, Zajac had a goal three assists, and Blandisi a goal and two assists.
Palmieri said afterwards, “That was a lot of fun, especially for our line. I know Trav’s been waiting a while for that one and (Blandisi) maybe even longer. To get that first one, it’s good. Obviously, we would have liked to follow it up a little better, but a win’s a win, so we’re happy about that.”
Zajac said, “Our start was the key for us tonight, definitely got us the win. It just felt like, kind of, everything was going in the net for us, but we made some good plays off some turnovers and PP (power play), so sometimes you get rewarded for that, and we did tonight. We just have to make sure we continue to play the right way, I think that’s the big thing. We’re not a fancy team coming up the ice, and we make plays down low, we win battles. That’s where our skill comes out, so that’s what we have to continue to develop.”
Schneider said, “That first was something else. I thought we came ready to play tonight in a big game. Give our guys all the credit in the world in that first period, we were outstanding. That’s probably the best 20 minutes I’ve seen this team play maybe in my three years here. I didn’t have to do much in the first there, so it was real fun to watch that.”
On if he has ever seen that before, Schneider said, “I guess in other games, I can’t remember the last time I got five goals scored in a period. We were feeling it for sure, guys were moving the puck with confidence, we were shooting pucks, and it was great to see Joe (Blandisi) get his first goal, Trav (Zajac) had a big night, Palm (Palmieri), so it was good to see that whole group have that success.”
The Devils came out sluggish for the second period, and allowed a goal 7:30 into the frame that prompted a timeout from Hynes after he saw them turn the puck over three times in their own end leading up to it.
That got the Devils back on track, but Ottawa gave them a scare with two goals late the third period that cut it to 5-3 with 2:46 remaining. Schneider was visibly angered, and raced to the bench and broke his stick over the boards.
Schneider said of that, “I was just frustrated, I’m a competitor. I thought as a group, we could have played a bit stronger, myself included, down to the wire, but we got the job done. That’s just the competitor in me who, I think we demand a lot out of ourselves and perfection. It got a little loose at the end, that happens, and I’ll take the win any day.”
Adam Henrique got an empty-netter with 18 seconds left to seal the victory.