After months, really years of anticipation, the New Jersey Devils are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. New Jersey has been among the elite teams in the NHL since their November Reign all but assured the team of its first playoff appearance since the 2017-18 season. Also for months, we’ve had a pretty good idea of whom their first-round opponent would be, and that’s their Hudson River Rivals – the New York Rangers. This is what now stands between the Devils and their first postseason series win since… beating the Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.
“I think the playoffs will be fun (with this group). I hope everyone just enjoys it, be in the moment, it’s a fun time for everyone,” Devils defenseman John Marino recently told Pucks & Pitchforks. “The only thing that matters is winning, so you get everyone on the same page and rally around each other. I’m sure some guys may be nervous (at the start) but you just wanna go out there and have fun and do the best you can.”
Marino will be entering his fourth NHL postseason and is looking to advance past the first round for the first time. He and the Penguins lost in nearly every imaginable way over the 25-year-old’s first three seasons. Last season he was on the wrong side of an overtime, Game 7 loss against – the New York Rangers.
“I’m sure everyone wants us to play the Rangers; it would be fun,” added Marino. “But whatever happens, happens.”
Marino is a key piece of the much-improved Devils defense corps, and he was acquired for moments like the one that New Jersey is on the cusp of. Another acquisition that was made for exactly this moment was that of Timo Meier. While Marino was brought over from Pittsburgh in an offseason trade, Meier has only been with the Devils since March.
“He’s really helped us on the power play,” Head Coach Lindy Ruff told the media after Meier had the game-winning goal – via the power play – in a late-season win over the Rangers. Nearly half of Meier’s nine goals since the trade to the Devils (4) came with the extra attacker and his presence has solidified the team’s top power-play unit.
With more practice (and years together) imagine what kind of damage a unit of Meier, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, and Jesper Bratt will inflict against their opponents. It might not be perfect yet, but they’re getting there. And the puck movement is getting better each day, whether in practice or games.
“Game by game, I’m feeling better, with the system – more familiar. I want to be perfect and ready to go for the playoffs,” Meier said late in the season.
IF (and that’s a big if) this group of Devils can get through the first round, they could go on a run. Think of the momentum gained, the confidence that would have been built – or added to their already confident selves – with a triumph over the Rangers, whom many already have crowned the winners in the series.
“If we play the right way – we have a really solid lineup with our goaltending, defense, and forwards – we can make some noise (in the playoffs),” Damon Severson, the longest-tenured Devil, told P&P. “There are no surprises anymore, we’re not going to surprise anyone; but we’re going into the first round with guns blazing, and we have to be ready to go.”
New Jersey won three of the four games this season against New York, and that will be another boost of confidence for a team with nine-ten players making their NHL playoff debuts. One of those will not be Tomas Tatar, who enters with 40 games of postseason experience with Detroit, Montreal, and Vegas.
“It’s fun. Those opportunities to be in the playoffs are not every year, as we know,” Tatar told us. “I know it’s cliché but when you get the chance you have to put in everything you have for the team to have success and I think that’s what the playoffs are all about. I’m very excited for a lot of the guys here.”
“I think we’re happy, not satisfied. We’re happy with where we’re at, and there are still areas that we can improve – and we have to improve to be successful in the playoffs.”
Earlier this season, we wrote about how both Tatar and Dawson Mercer would be X-factors heading into the postseason. We still stand by that claim, as that duo has been as integral to the team’s success as anyone else, and with Hischier between them the trio has been the team’s most consistent all season long.
“He’s slippery. I’d say he’s snake-ish. He can maneuver in a tight piece of ice,” Ruff said of Mercer in what I thought was one of the best quotes of the season. “He’s got that wiriness about him around the net. He can twist and turn and shake people, hold on to pucks, and battle for opportunities. It’s just a never-quit-on-the-puck type of thing, and I think it’s rewarded him with the number of goals that he has right now.”
Mercer has turned into a bonafide star and a cornerstone piece of the franchise, so thank you Taylor Hall for that. The 21-year-old has played in every game in each of the past two seasons for New Jersey, and this season improved his point total by 14 (42-56), goal total by ten (17-27), and assist total by four (25-29).
“He surprised everybody by playing (in the NHL) when he did after a great camp (last year) and he just continues to grow,” added Ruff. “When you have a player like that, in that situation, you want to see improvement in different areas of his game. You look at PK, PP, late in games – he’s a guy that we have on the ice. His game has grown and he takes a lot of pride in his game.”
One of Mercer’s biggest assets is his speed, which just happens to be one of the biggest assets of the entire roster. Maybe only Edmonton is faster in the NHL. When they are going well, they are a hard group to contain. Go back and read some postgame quotes from opposing coaches against New Jersey this season. They all say some variation of – their team speed killed us or their relentlessness got the best of us.
“That’s our main strength, I think,” Mercer told us. “If we’re moving our legs – it’s hard to contain us. Our puck play is fast, we’re tracking back hard to get that puck, and we’re turning it into offense pretty quick.”
It might’ve been a sweep if the Devils were playing the Penguins in the opening round, but that’s not the case. It’s Devils vs. Rangers, and it’s going to be ridiculously tight. This might be the most entertaining series in the NHL.
On the eve of Game 1 here’s my official prediction: Devils in 7, Meier with the overtime winner.