Devils beat Leafs in reminder of how far each team has come

Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood scored for the Devils to beat the Maple Leaf 2-1 and clinch a spot in the playoffs.

NEWARK, N.J. – “It’s no better feeling than to prove people wrong,” Taylor Hall was saying after the roof nearly came off Prudential Center. After his New Jersey Devils booked their first ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2012.

Given how recently the Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs were mired in mediocrity, it was the kind of moment several NHL fanbases could appreciate from afar.

If you were sitting in Montreal or Vancouver or Buffalo on Thursday night, this was a blinking, roaring beacon of hope. Why? Just two seasons ago, the Leafs and Devils finished off forgettable campaigns in this building with a 5-1 New Jersey win that “clinched” Toronto a 30th-place finish.

That set the lottery balls in motion to get Auston Matthews fitted for a Leafs sweater and propelled the organization immediately into the post-season. Now it’s playing out the string with a (franchise) record-tying 103 points and harbouring thoughts about making a run at the Stanley Cup.

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The Devils, meanwhile, stumbled to 27th overall last season after prying Hall out of Edmonton. Then they stumbled into some lottery luck of their own – grabbing Nico Hischier in June after winning the No. 1 pick and then taking a giant step forward these last couple months.

“It’s just a fun team,” said goalie Keith Kinkaid, who stopped 31 shots in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Toronto to clinch the playoff berth.

There are plenty of markets where fun isn’t being had right now. Plus, the real fun starts next week after 15 teams have already cleared out their lockers.

But with the exception of Calgary, which traded its first-round pick to the New York Islanders in the Travis Hamonic deal, all of those teams still have something to cheer for: The draft lottery goes April 28 and there’s a huge prize on the line in the form of Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin.

Whoever is lucky enough to be gifted the chance to draft him could very well follow the Devils and Leafs by jumping straight to the post-season. By now the path is well-established.

Looking back, it’s almost comical how confident Mike Babcock sounded here on April 9, 2016 after his team wrapped up a 69-point season.

“Lots of really good things have happened,” he said.

“The future of our organization, I think, is very bright,” he added. “There’s still some pain coming, but we’re going to get a lot better very fast.”

Even if there was an element of fake-it-till-you-make-it in those comments, the coach was clearly on to something. His Leafs were sluggish for 40 minutes in New Jersey, but still head to Game 82 of this season needing one point to establish a new all-time organizational mark.

William Nylander scored Toronto’s lone goal against Kinkaid to hit 60 points – joining Matthews and Mitch Marner as the first players in Leafs history to open their careers with at least that many in each of their first two seasons.

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That also turned this Leafs team into the first since the 1998-99 version to feature six 20-goal scorers. They have a lot of ways to beat you.

On Thursday, they also had much less to play for than the red-hot Devils and it showed. The home side burst out of the gates with seven shots in the first four minutes and wound up clinching its first playoff berth since 2012 thanks to second-period goals from Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood.

“We didn’t have it going at the start of the game and it looked like it and in the end we made some mistakes – sticks in feet and just guys skating by us,” said Babcock. “It is what is it. Get ready for the next game and then get ready for what we’ve earned.”

There is hope here that the Devils might be able to chart a similar rise to what we’ve witnessed in Toronto. No one was more elated about the playoff berth than Hall, who needed eight seasons and 529 career NHL games to reach this position.

Without being asked, he mentioned feeling a measure of redemption after the trade out of Edmonton. He also spoke of the wild scene inside the arena as Toronto unsuccessfully swarmed for the tying goal in the final seconds.

It was, well, positively playoff-like.

“Fan appreciation night, to clinch, to have it come down to the last second there – it’s just, it’s a lot of fun,” said Hall. “It was a really good feeling to hear that buzzer go and see the playoff logo on the jumbotron, hear the ovation. That’s what it’s all about.”

The noise should travel a lot farther than Newark.

There are a couple franchises out there that should remember the playoffs are occasionally like objects in the mirror: Much closer than they appear.

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