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Devils-Senators: Goodbye Regular Season, Hello Playoffs!

The First Season is over and now the REAL one begins for the New Jersey Devils.
Peter DeBoer’s club closed their 82-game regular schedule with a rousing 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon in Newark.
Ilya Kovalchuk led the way with two goals – his 36th and 37th of the season -- and Stephen Gionta scored the game-winner in the third period for his first career NHL goal.
Petr Sykora scored his 21st of the season in the middle frame, which had tied the game at two. Kovy’s second was an empty-netter.
“It’s exciting,” said Gionta after the game, “I’m just thankful for the opportunity to play.”
In his post-game media scrum, DeBoer made clear that Gionta could be in the club’s playoff lineup.
“We wanted to see what he had to offer,” said the coach, “and he showed us some good things.”
Martin Brodeur was splendid once again for the Devils in goal, stopping 31 of 33 shots.
“Any time Marty is in the net he gives everybody that extra bit of confidence,” assessed Adam Henrique. “It’s like having a third defenseman back there.”
Even more impressive was the fact that the Devils killed both Senators’ power plays, including one late in the third period. New Jersey set the highest penalty kill percentage (89.6 percent) in the NHL expansion era.
“It’s about pressure at the right time and we read off each other really well,” said Zach Parise. “It’s something we have a lot of confidence in.”
When the game ended the Devils did not know which opponent they would face in the first round, but that didn’t seem to matter to them.
“Whoever it is, we have to play Devils hockey,” concluded Henrique.
Most interesting about the Saturday matchup was the fact that last October both teams were projected to miss the playoffs, and the Sens and Devs -- full credit to both! -- fooled the experts and reached the post-season.
But, as proud as he is of his accomplishment, DeBoer will quickly tell you that gaining a playoff berth is old business. Winning the first round of the playoffs is his primary focus and goal at the moment.
“We’ve been in a tough division this year,” said DeBoer, “and I think it’s made us playoff ready.”
That said, we’ll soon learn how ready they really are – or are not.
Looking ahead – with some 20-20 hindsight – here’s my evaluation, position by position:
• GOALTENDING: The good news is that Brodeur, 39, finished the season on a high with his 30th win on Thursday night in Detroit.
And there’s more reason to smile. Backup goalie Johan (Moose) Hedberg completed the campaign with some of the best puck-stopping numbers in the league (17-7-2, 2.22 GAA, .918 save percentage).
Brodeur will start and no doubt will be the main man throughout the opening round, unless there are extenuating circumstances. In that case we may then see The Moose between the pipes; stranger things have happened.
• DEFENSE: DeBoer has a blend of toughness (Bryce Salvador-Anton Volchenkov) and offense (Marek Zidlicky-Andy Greene) on the blue line with someone who has a little of both (Mark Fayne) thrown in for good measure.
The hope is that recent addition Peter Harrold -- so far a pleasant surprise -- can continue his plus play. In reserve, there’s the rookie Adam Larsson, whose homestretch fade forced him to the sidelines.
Larsson returned to the lineup against Ottawa and if the club goes into the second round, don’t be surprised if offense-minded Matt Taormina -- now in the AHL with Albany -- moves back to the Varsity.
• OFFENSE: The Big Howitzers (Parise, Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson) must smash enemy defenses. A pop-gun attack will never do when the chips are down next week.
Secondary scoring will be decisive, and that’s where the following regular season worthies come in: Sykora (21 goals), Dainius Zubrus (17), and Henrique (16) will carry the load; but not all of it.
By far, THE extra added attraction is No. 1 center Travis Zajac. Absent for almost the entire season while recovering from Achilles heel surgery, Zajac is roughly equivalent to a gifted trade deadline acquisition.
All things being equal, Travis should be in mint condition when the playoffs begin. His return provides the Devils with their best forward depth of the season; with one exception.
The debit here is the fractured wrist that has fourth-line center Jacob Josefson sidelined up to six weeks.
Lesser lights -- but not forgotten -- include Alexei Ponikarovsky, Steve Bernier, and Ryan Carter, each of whom has provided the kind of grit that will be useful in a playoff run.
• COACHING: Arguably the most underrated aspect of the Devils’ playoff return is DeBoer’s orchestrating of the team over the season. Confronted by assorted challenges -- minus his top two centers for most of the campaign -- DeBoer craftily and calmly steered his club to the playoffs.
Really, the playoffs are what it’s all about. But in the end, DeBoer’s stewardship will be judged heavily on how well he does coaching his first NHL playoff.
• SPECIAL TEAMS: New Jersey did splendidly in the penalty-kill department. How do you do better than being rated number one in the league?
The power play is another story, and had a less than enthusiastic regular season finish – 14th out of 30 (17.2%). However, the Devs scored two of their goals against the Senators with the man-advantage.
Clearly, the PP should be improved with the return of Zajac and some intense practice. No aspect of the offense requires more improvement than the Double P.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” added the coach, “but now we have another challenge to face and I believe that we are ready for it.”


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