NEWARK, N.J. — The worst season in nearly three decades is just a recent memory, and so is the five-year drought.
The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs, and again in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. It's like old times.
The Devils completed a remarkable comeback season by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 on Thursday night to clinch their first postseason berth since making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012.
It capped an offseason and regular season that saw general manager Ray Shero reshape half his 25-man roster through free agency, the draft and trades and have John Hynes make all the right moves to keep his team in a playoff position every day of the season.
Not bad for a club that won 28 games and finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17.
"This is the best, the best," said veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2016. "My first stint in Pittsburgh and Anaheim and then again in Pittsburgh, I never appreciated what baseball players did. I thought it was stupid when they would come in and have champagne when they made the playoffs. I get it now. Making the playoffs is hard."
The Devils can point to so many players in bouncing back from their worst season since 1988-89. Taylor Hall (39 goals, 54 assists) had a career year that teammates feel merits the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. Top draft pick Nico Hischier overcame a slow start to have 19 goals and 51 points. Free agent Will Butcher set a team record for rookie defensemen with 44 points.
The unsung hero was goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who stepped for an injured Cory Schneider and carried the team over the final 10 weeks, going 10-1-1 in the last 12 games and helping the New York-metropolitan area avoid being shut out of the postseason for the first time since the Devils took up residence in New Jersey in 1982. The Rangers and Islanders will miss the postseason.
"It's fun, but playoffs are a new breed," said Kinkaid, who re-signed with the team in the offseason despite being an unrestricted free agent.
There are only two players left from the Devils' 2011-12 team: defenseman and captain Andy Greene, and Travis Zajac, who centers the line Hynes' uses against the opponent's top line.
While there have been lean years, Zajac said the Devils rediscovered themselves this season. They practiced and played hard, and made sure opponents knew they were in for a battle every game.
The results have been a 44-28-9 record that includes a 25-8-9 mark in one-goal games. It was a record that reminded many of the old Devils, a franchise that made the playoffs 20 of 22 times and won three Cups between 1989-90 and 2011-12.
This group, however, skates faster and is relentless.
Last year, the Devils were disappointing underachievers. Their biggest sin was failing to compete every night. And they paid the price, especially down the stretch when they went 3-17-4.
Hynes and Shero changed that. It started with the roster makeover that included the signing of veteran Brian Boyle, and an attitude readjustment.
"It's a different skill set and youth," said Shero, who also strengthened the team during the season by acquiring defenseman Sami Vatanen and forwards Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon in trades. "But they had to fight, they clawed and scraped to get what they've got and they've earned it."
With a game to play, the Devils won't learn their first-round opponent until Saturday at the earliest. They are the top wild-card team in the Eastern Conference, and they will at least stay there if they win at Washington on Saturday night. They also could go up or down depending on what Columbus, Philadelphia, Florida and Pittsburgh do.
It really doesn't matter. The Devils are just looking forward to the postseason.
"You go into this year thinking it's going to be a bigger challenge," said Boyle, who provided inspiration by overcoming cancer early in the season. "Plenty of people were writing us off. It makes it pretty sweet to clinch. I have just tried to tell everyone: 'It's going to be so much fun. You have never played hockey this fun in your life until you play playoff hockey.'"
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