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The worst season in nearly three decades is just a recent memory [url=http://www.authenticstennesseetitans.com/cheap-luke-falk-jersey]Luke Falk Color Rush Jersey[/url] , 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 [url=http://www.panthersauthorizedshops.com/authentic-dj-moore-jersey]Panthers DJ Moore Jersey[/url] , 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 [url=http://www.patriotscheapshops.com/cheap-authentic-jason-mccourty-jersey]Cheap Jason McCourty Jersey[/url] , 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.”’
More NHL hockey: Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin had harsh words for the comments made by President Donald Trump regarding the NFL’s new national anthem policy on Thursday, as players began to process the new mandate from the league’s owners.
Baldwin has been a leading voice from the players’ perspective for why there were protests last season even though Baldwin never participated in kneeling or sitting on the sidelines during ”The Star-Spangled Banner.”
He spoke passionately after the Seahawks concluded their offseason workout and sounded offended by the president’s comments to ”Fox & Friends” in an interview that aired Thursday saying, ”maybe you shouldn’t be in the country” if you don’t stand for the anthem.
”He’s an idiot. Plain and simple,” Baldwin said. ”I respect the man because he’s a human being first and foremost, but he’s just being divisive, which is not surprising. It is what it is. But for him to say anybody who doesn’t follow his viewpoints or his constituents viewpoints should be kicked out of the country is not very empathetic. It’s not very American like, actually, to me. It’s not very patriotic. It’s not what this country was founded upon. It’s kind of ironic to me the President of the United States is contradicting what our country is really built on.”
Baldwin was among a handful of players that have expressed frustration and disappointment with the NFL mandating players must stand for the national anthem if they’re on the field, though they now have the option of remaining in the locker room for the playing of the anthem and carry on the campaigns against social injustice.
Even normally reserved Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson agreed with the sentiment that the owners’ decision was a message to players to essentially be quiet.
”Pretty much. I think that’s part of it. It seems that way,” Wilson said. ”But I think a policy right or wrong is not going to fix our problems.”
The new policy allows teams to adopt their own workplace rules, which many players interpreted as a backhanded way of subjecting them to fines [url=http://www.vikingscheapshops.com/cheap-authentic-brian-o_neill-jersey]Cheap Brian O'Neill Jersey[/url] , suspensions or loss of jobs should they carry on with the protests.
For Baldwin, who is among the players to have worked with the league on addressing social concerns and community programs, the anthem decision felt like a step back.
”If you’re asking my opinion, I think that in conjunction with the NFL, the way that things were going, I felt on the Players Coalition side of things we were coming to an amicable agreement and relationship and working toward initiatives and causes that we wanted to see as players addressed, I thought that you would see the demonstrations and the issues within the NFL dissipate,” Baldwin said.
”But again, when you stoke the fire and inflame a gap that was really dissipating at the time, diffusing, you cause more problems. That’s why I say I think the NFL missed it.”
Others around the league didn’t see the policy as a potential issue.
”I’m really not too worried about it. I would expect that everybody’s gonna be out there with their hand over their heart, showing respect to the flag and to the country,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said.
But teammate Demario Davis had mixed emotions about the policy. His father served in the military, but he also understands why players have been protesting.
”I just think that when you love something – you care about it – you want to work to get it right. I love my children. When they do wrong things [url=http://www.authenticshoustontexans.com/cheap-keke-coutee-jersey]Keke Coutee Color Rush Jersey[/url] , I’m going to let them know they’re doing wrong things. I’m not just going to sweep it under the rug because I love them,” Davis said.
”I think that’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is loving your country just to love it, you know, even when it’s right or wrong, you’re going to take the side of your country. Patriotism is loving it enough to sacrifice for it, but also to call it (out) when it’s wrong.
”The people who are speaking up for the people who are hurting have a deep love and devotion for our country. That’s kind of gotten misconstrued at times. But it’s important for people to understand that.”
The decision by the owners was an attempt to quell a firestorm by moving protests away from the public eye and potentially lure back disgruntled fans. But in the process they may have disgruntled their employees and rekindled what appeared to be an issue that was dying down.
”I feel like it might want to make people just want to rebel, just like when Trump said what he said last year,” Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall said.
”People rebelled. And let’s be clear. I know they say they’ll fine the team, but players don’t care about that. Players don’t care about the teams get fined.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.
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