NEWARK, NJ — During the time Devils forward Blake Coleman was taking a pregame nap this afternoon, the team that has become New Jersey’s closest pursuer for the second and final wild card spot that it currently is holding on to, the Florida Panthers, lost in spectacular fashion in Boston, giving the Devils a wonderful opportunity to open up some breathing room in the Eastern Conference playoff race later in the evening.
Fortunately for Coleman, he and his team woke up from their somnolent start to take full advantage of Florida’s gift to help cement their position in the postseason.
Coleman’s shorthanded goal late in the second period proved to be the game winner as the Devils defeated their Hudson River rivals, the New York Islanders, 4-3 at the Prudential Center on Saturday night, the win extending New Jersey’s lead on the Panthers for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot to five points with just four games remaining.
The palpable excitement in the building to start the game, knowing the opportunity that was presented to the Devils with the out-of-town result from Boston, dissipated in the game’s first 75 seconds, when Islanders center Tanner Fritz scored to give the Islanders a 1-0 lead. New Jersey responded by scoring three unanswered goals spanning the first and second periods, including back-to-back tallies by Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall in the second frame to give the Devils a 3-1 advantage.
Before Hall’s goals, at the 7:54 mark of the first, Stefan Noesen tied the game for New Jersey off a feed from Coleman, restoring parity at 1-1 and getting New Jersey back into the contest after it had carried the play for the majority of the time in between the Islanders’ opener and Noesen’s equalizer.
“It was kind of a sleepy start I thought, which we had no excuse for,” said Coleman, who scored his 13th goal of the season tonight. “But I thought we responded well. We had a few surges there. Obviously, the first goal got us going a little bit. But, still, a lot we can learn from this game. It was a lot closer than we’d like it to be, but at the end of the day, we came out with two points.”
It was two points Coleman and the Devils knew that the Panthers were not able to achieve today after it’s 5-1 demolition at the hands of the Bruins on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden in Beantown.
Actually, Coleman had an idea what happened to Florida, but much later in the day.
“I was actually napping, so I didn’t realize [the Panthers] were playing,” Coleman said to A Lot of Sports Talk when asked where he was as Florida was playing this afternoon. “I think I got a text telling me that they had lost. It certainly doesn’t change anything. We still need a win. We still want to climb the ladder. What they do is not really our focus right now, it’s what we’re doing.”
New York tilted the ice back to its favor once more, cutting the Devils’ lead to one at the 13:19 mark of the second period on an Anthony Beauvillier power play goal that made the score 3-2. Just a few minutes later, the Islanders went on the power play after New Jersey defenseman Damon Severson was called for a holding penalty.
Instead of a possible game-tying power play goal from the Isles, New Jersey doubled its lead while a man down. Defenseman Mirco Mueller skated up the ice to clear the puck out of his zone, but then kept possession of it as a 2-on-1 opportunity with Coleman was developing. Mueller’s backhand pass found the tape of Coleman’s stick, and the latter whipped a wrist shot past New York goalkeeper Thomas Griess to give the Devils a 4-2 lead with just 62 seconds remaining in the second period.
“You have to have guys on your team that they can turn plays at key times, and that was turning a play at a key time and it was a big goal for us, obviously, [it was] the game winner,” said Devils head coach John Hynes.
A goal off of a deflection by Chris Wagner once again cut the Islanders’ deficit to one at the 16:21 mark of the third period, but New Jersey held on in the final four minutes to win its fourth game in its last five contests. In each of those last five games, the margin of victory has been one goal.
“It’s a very competitive time of the year. You’re in a lot of tight games, you’re in situations where every play matters and you have to understand how to handle certain situations,” Hynes said. “It is a good test for us because, if you’re playing in 5-2 games, things are not as intense. Every play, particularly later in the game, doesn’t get as magnified. I think the competitive level of both teams in one-goal games is very high, which is good for us to be able to go through this at this time of year and learn how hard you have to battle in those situations.”
New Jersey has a quick turnaround before its next game, traveling up to Quebec to take on the Montréal Canadiens tomorrow evening, as a win against the Habs would allow the Devils to open up significant breathing room between themselves and the Panthers going into the final week of the season. A win could also vault New Jersey into the top three of the Metropolitan Division if the Philadelphia Flyers, currently one point ahead of the Devils at 92 points, fail to win at home against Boston on Sunday afternoon.