WASHINGTON — With their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2012 safely in hand, the New Jersey Devils have one game left to see if they can improve their position when they visit the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.
The Devils (44-28-9) clinched a playoff spot by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 on Thursday night at the Prudential Center.
“We did it. We didn’t rely on anyone. It’s a sense of accomplishment,” Devils forward Brian Boyle told nhl.com. “The battling for playoff positioning and trying to clinch, it’s all part of the fun of it. Emotions rise, tensions rise, you work hard and you get rewarded. We did it together.”
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The Devils will finish with at least 97 points — 99 if they defeat the Capitals — far above the 70 points by last season’s club that finished at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division.
With one game remaining, the Devils are in position to clinch the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. They can finish as high as third in the Metropolitan Division or as low as the second wild-card spot.
Against the Leafs, New Jersey fell behind 1-0 in the first period, but Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood scored in the second period. Keith Kincaid finished with 31 saves, including 12 in the third period.
The Devils also earned this spot, going 10-2-1 in their past 13 games.
“It’s a credit to a lot of guys in here for just coming up big when the pressure is on,” forward Taylor Hall told nhl.com. “That’s what I’m proud of, how we’ve played through the stretch here.”
Washington’s playoff position is set, though their opponent is not. The Metropolitan Division winner will draw the top wild-card team, which may not be decided until Sunday when the Florida Panthers face the Boston Bruins.
The Capitals (48-26-7), the two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, watched the Nashville Predators secure this season’s trophy with a 4-3 win over the Capitals on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.
“But I like the way we’re playing,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz told The Washington Post after the Capitals lost for just the second time since March 20. “We’re playing with lots of speed, we’re playing with lots of pace, and that was a good test.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice for Washington and Alex Ovechkin scored his NHL-leading 47th goal, meaning he will need a hat trick Saturday night to reach 50 goals for the eighth time.
“Right now, our focus is not on 50, our focus is on the playoffs,” Ovechkin told nhl.com. “And being in shape. We didn’t get hurt. That’s the most important thing.”
Kuznetsov, who added an assist, posted his 82nd point of the season and became the 16th player in franchise history to reach 80 and the first player other than Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to do it since Alexander Semin in the 2009-10 season.
Kuznetsov’s 27 goals this season are a personal season high.
Phillip Grubauer made 25 saves for Washington. Braden Holtby will likely start against the Devils, and the wait will begin for Trotz to reveal his playoff goaltending plans.
In Holtby’s last three starts, he is 2-1-0 with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.