NEWARK, N.J. — As five years of hockey frustration ended for the New Jersey Devils, players embraced, raised their sticks to salute their long-suffering fans and just imagined what the future held.
The New Jersey Devils are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, knowing they have a shot at the Stanley Cup, like 15 other teams after clinching a post-season berth with a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.
No tee times this year. No vacation. The real hockey starts next week.
"There’s certain moments in your life and certain moments in a season that you want to be able to celebrate," Devils coach John Hynes said. "This is one of them. It’s a significant accomplishment for us to be able to get ourselves back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs."
What the Devils did this season was remarkable. They finished last in the Eastern Conference with 28 wins and 70 points.
Their win over the Maple Leafs was their 44th of the season and gave them 97 points with a game to go in the regular season. Pat Maroon did most of the important work against the Leafs, setting up second-period goals by Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood to provide the margin of victory.
After that, it was just a matter of holding off the playoff-bound Maple Leafs, who pushed in the third period.
Keith Kinkaid, the mainstay in goal since the end of January, made 31 saves as the Devils won their fourth straight and extended their points streak to eight games (7-0-1). He preserved the lead with a stop in close on Auston Matthews with just over seven minutes to play
He called the final 10 minutes stressful and exciting.
"The fans were into it," he said. "That’s an unreal atmosphere out there. You hear how loud they were. Everyone is battling. Everyone is back-checking. Everyone is doing all the little things and we’re a really hard team to play against when we do that."
When the final horn sounded there was a sense of accomplishment. A cheer went up when the Stanley Cup logo and the Devils’ logo were shown on the overhead scoreboard.
Centre Travis Zajac skated behind defenceman and captain Andy Greene and hugged him. It’s been a long five years for the only two holdovers from the 2012 team that lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Kings.
"We’re a group that doesn’t give up," Greene said. "We are relentless. We play for each other. We play hard for each other."
The Devils also earned this spot, going 10-2-1 in its past 13 games.
William Nylander scored on a power play in the first period for Toronto to ice his second straight 20-goal season. Frederik Andersen was outstanding, making 37 saves, including saves on breakaways by Taylor Hall and Michael Grabner in the big second period.
The loss was only the fourth in 13 games (9-4) for the Maple Leafs, who will face either Boston or Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
"They are a good team," Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner said. "That’s as close to playoff hockey as we are going to get right now. That was kind of us last year, fighting for a spot to get in. They played hard. They played well. They didn’t give us too much."
New Jersey, which is currently the first wild card in the Eastern Conference, will have to wait for its playoff opponent to be decided.
While the Devils had the majority of shots for the first 27-plus minutes, they fell behind 1-0 when Nylander scored from the right circle 12 seconds after Nico Hischier was called for tripping.
Zacha didn’t tie the game until 7:55 of the second period. He won a puck along the boards in centre ice, worked a give-and-go with Maroon entering the Toronto zone and beat Andersen with a shot from the left circle just under the crossbar.
Maroon, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with Edmonton, did all the work on Wood’s 18th goal. He fended off Nazem Kadri carrying the puck from in front of his bench, all the way behind the net and then came out the other side and found Wood alone in front for a slam dunk.
NOTES: Matthews extended his point-scoring streak to eight games with an assist on Nylander’s goal. … The Devils won the season series 2-0-1. … Hall’s nine-game points scoring streak and four-game goals run were snapped. …. There were four penalties in the game.
Maple Leafs: Host Montreal on Saturday night in regular-season finale.
Devils: End the regular season at Washington on Saturday night.