Of all the things the New Jersey Devils could deliver their fans on Fan Appreciation Night Thursday at the Prudential Center, clinching a spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs is at the top of the list.
With a magic number of two points coming into play Thursday, the preferred method of securing a postseason berth is a victory over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, even though there are other scenarios involving the ninth-place Florida Panthers in which New Jersey would clinch, as well.
“We don’t want to count on anyone else,” said Devils winger Kyle Palmieri.
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The Devils (43-28-9) have done their fair share of winning down the stretch to put themselves in this position. They are 6-0-1 in their last seven games, and carry a three-game winning streak into their home finale of the regular season following Tuesday’s dominating 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers.
Taylor Hall continued to build on his Hart Trophy candidacy with two goals and two assists against the Rangers, extending his career highs to 39 goals and 93 points on the season. He has six goals in his last four games and carries a league-best nine-game point-scoring streak into Thursday’s contest.
“If there’s one thing I’m proud of personally this season is I’ve played well when the games have mattered,” said Hall. “I think that’s true of a lot of guys on our team. You see our record the past 10 games or so. When the chips are down, we’ve come to play and we’ve won games.”
Goaltender Keith Kinkaid is the backbone of New Jersey’s strong finish. He started each of the last seven games and 11 of the last 12, posting a 9-1-1 record. Since Feb. 13, Kinkaid owns an outstanding 15-3-1 record.
“It’s been fun to play regularly and contribute to us winning games,” said Kinkaid.
While the Devils try to clinch their first playoff berth since the 2011-12 season, the Maple Leafs (48-25-7) already punched their second straight ticket to the postseason and are set for a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division. Their only unknown is whether they will face the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
“We don’t really compare what either of those series would be like,” Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly told reporters after practice Wednesday. “We just have to prepare for whoever it may be. We’ve got two games here to work on some things and get some things nailed down to get ready for the playoffs.”
The Maple Leafs come off a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday and have won nine of their last 12 games. Auston Matthews and William Nylander each scored twice and added an assist against the Sabres and backup goalie Curtis McElhinney made 32 saves.
Matthews has at least one point in all seven games he has played since returning from a 10-game absence due to an injured shoulder. Injuries limited Matthews to 60 games so far this season, but he has 33 goals and 60 points.
“Simply put, we are a better team when he is in the lineup,” stated Toronto’s Nazem Kadri.
The teams split their first two meetings this season, both of which were played in Toronto. The Devils doubled up the Maple Leafs 6-3 on Oct. 11 before Frederik Andersen turned in a 42-save shutout to help Toronto edge New Jersey 1-0 in overtime on Nov. 16.