Last night’s 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes effectively shut the Canes out of the post season and drew New Jersey one day closer to celebrating their first playoff appearance since 2012. Stefan Noesen’s late third-period goal clinched the game after a see-saw battle all night. Noesen was awarded the game’s first star, with Kyle Palmieri (2 G, 1 A), and Taylor Hall (3 A) following. Not getting any mention, but very important to the Devils’ win was Pavel Zacha, who scored the game’s first goal.
Zacha, who was the 6th overall selection in the 2015 draft, has tremendous talent, but recently has been overshadowed by the likes of Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall. Even rookie Jesper Bratt has gotten more notice this season. But, quietly and slowly, the 20-year old Zacha has been developing. Now centering the third line, Zacha was only on the ice for 12:55 last night, but not only did he get the first goal of the game, but he also won 11 of 19 face offs during the game, while meting out 3 hits. This reflects Zacha’s continuing development in his second year of professional play. Since returning from injury on March 23rd, the young Czech has posted three points (1G, 2A) in 3 games.
Another player who needs to show his stuff over the next 10 days is Michael Grabner. The Devils obtained Grabner ahead of the trade deadline from the Rangers. An offensively talented goal scorer, with excellent skating speed, Grabner has top six talent while also being one the league’s best penalty killer. He fit perfectly in the Rangers’ system, but has struggled since coming across the river (15 GP, 2G, 2A). Cast in a fourth line role here, Grabner has not had some of the freedom he had in New York. But last night, against Carolina, he got more ice time at even strength and looked more comfortable in his role. It remains to be seen if Grabner can fit into this system, but the Devils could really use him to provide secondary scoring for the rental to be worth the cost.
The race for the playoffs probably will not end until the final day of the regular season. With the Florida Panthers (New Jersey’s biggest challenger for the final post-season spot) still having three games left against the surging Boston Bruins (including the final regular season NHL game on April 8th, this race looks to be a cliff hanger all the way. How close is it? Five teams in the Metropolitan Division are currently within seven points of each other; four of them will make the playoffs. There are many mathematical permutations that can have one or other of the teams making it or not, but suffice it to say that, of the six games the Devils have left in the regular season, only one is against one of those five teams. Three are against teams that have no hope of making the playoffs. With the exception of the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey has the easiest schedule of the five teams over the next 10 days too.
The Devils next contest will be at home against Pittsburgh tomorrow evening. With the Penguins also fighting to stay in the second divisional playoff spot and New Jersey needing every point, it should be a highly