WHAT IT MEANS: The Devils are back in the playoffs. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96 in 2010-11, the Devils rebounded to qualify for the postseason for the 14th time in 15 seasons -- and 20th in 22 -- after routing the Hurricanes, 5-0, on Saturday night in Raleigh.
If the season ended on Saturday, the sixth-seeded Devils (45-28-6, 96 points) would take on the third-seeded Panthers (37-25-16, 90) in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
HOW IT HAPPENED: Under new coach Peter DeBoer, the Devils overcame injuries to Martin Brodeur, Travis Zajac, Jacob Josefson, Henrik Tallinder and Andy Greene, as well as a 12-12-1 start, and have a chance to win their fourth Stanley Cup championship in franchise history.
Rookie Adam Henrique, who didn’t even make the team out of training camp, has centered Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise for much of the season and put himself in consideration for the Calder Trophy. David Clarkson has shattered his career-high with 30 goals. Kovalchuk has flourished after being moved to right wing. Patrik Elias has been the most consistent Devil this season, while Petr Sykora has proven to be worth every penny of his $650,000 salary.
While the Devils have had plenty of scoring depth up front, their defense has left much to be desired. Bryce Salvador has a plus-17 rating, but he’s been the team’s only consistent blueliner for the entire season. First-round pick Adam Larsson has had an up-and-down first-year campaign, and has been a healthy scratch of late. Marek Zidlicky was acquired in a pre-deadline deal to help quarterback what has been an anemic power-play unit.
Backup Johan Hedberg should win some type of award for the way he’s played this season, and, for the second straight season, Brodeur has rebounded from a dreadful start.
DeBoer is headed to the postseason for the first time in his coaching career.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Devils’ penalty-kill ranks first in the NHL, and is on pace to break the league record for single-season percentage (89.84); The 1999-00 Stars currently hold the record (89.25).
• They are 12-4 in shootouts; Kovalchuk leads the league with 11 shootout goals, while Parise’s eight are tied for second.
• They were ranked 17th in goals per game as of Saturday; they ranked last in that category last season.
HISTORY TELLS US: Since the lockout, the Devils have not advanced past the conference semifinals.
WHAT’S NEXT: Just three regular season games, then the playoffs.
LOOMING QUESTIONS: Is this the end? Brodeur is 39 and in the final season of his contract. He’s said he wants to keep playing. Would he play elsewhere after 18 seasons in New Jersey? In the prime of his career, Parise will probably be the most coveted player in free agency. Can the Devils retain him? The popular answer is no, but maybe a deep postseason runs changes that.