NEWARK, NJ — Going into last night, it had been 2,125 days since the last time the New Jersey Devils could, factually, call themselves a playoff team. If that near six-year wait for postseason hockey in the Garden State felt as long as the duration of the Ice Age to New Jersey Devils fans, the proceeding thaw has now officially begun.
With goals from unheralded players Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood in the second period, the New Jersey Devils came from behind to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 at Prudential Center, clinching the team’s first playoff berth since 2012, the year in which they last advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. The win caps a remarkable turnaround for the Devils, who finished last season with the fewest wins (28) and points (70) of any team in the Eastern Conference but now are a serious threat to any top team in the league once the second season starts next week.
The good chunk of this roster that has performed wonders all season long is made up of journeymen who have bounced around the league before finding a special place this season on a team that has serially overachieved. Most have yet to experience what the postseason is like, and will do so for the first time next week. But there are a couple of players on the team who have experienced both the highs and lows of the past few years in New Jersey, with Thursday night’s victory bringing them back to what life used to be when starting their National Hockey League careers.
The Long Road Back
It was the 2006-2007 season, and rookies Travis Zajac and Andy Greene were going through their baptisms by fire that many other young prospects who made it to the big club had experienced in continuing the culture of winning in New Jersey.
Zajac, the talented yet hard-nosed center, and Greene, the defensive-first blue liner, became regular contributors on a Devils team that was about to make its 10th consecutive postseason appearance. Zajac had played in over 80 games during the regular season while Greene played in as many playoff games (11) that year than he did regular season games (23). Just a few seasons on, in 2012, both of them logged heavy minutes on a team that played in the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. Postseason action in a Devils uniform was almost a rite of passage, given the franchise’s three Stanley Cups since 1995 and an extended streak of postseason appearances almost since then.
Until it was not. A coaching change as well as a new general manager were “highlights” of a five-year stretch that produced five consecutive losing seasons, a dry spell that Greene and Zajac suffered through together after that magical 2012 run. And if preseason prognostications were accurate this season, another lost season was on the horizon, which would have made the glory days of Devils hockey seem even more of a distant memory. For the graybeards on the Devils team to be part of the renaissance makes both appreciate the journey they had to get back – as well as not take for granted what they had when they first came into the league way back when.
“It was a lot of emotions, honestly,” said Greene, the captain of the Devils, about clinching a playoff spot on Thursday. “Obviously, when we first came here, we were at the other end of the spectrum. It wasn’t whether we were going to make the playoffs; it was whether we were going to have home ice and [get] the first three or four seeds there. Obviously, we went through a little down time, but that makes this now even sweeter.”
During the 2012 run to the Cup Final, Zajac ranked third on the team in goals (7) and total points (14) in the postseason, narrowly trailing both Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise in both categories. As season after season went by without a game after the 82nd contest, it was only natural to think if moments like 2012 would ever come around before having to call time on one’s career.
“Yeah, there are moments where you’re wondering, as you’re getting older, when you’re going to get back there,” said Zajac. “You got to go through some down times to really see what you’re made of, and I think we’ve done that. We’ve passed those tests the right way.”
Starting next week, the ultimate test, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, begin. At least for Greene and Zajac, it is an exam that they have aced in the past, thankful that they will get to take on that challenge at least one more time.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline and story is the photo gallery from Thursday evening’s game, with all photos taken by our senior photographer, Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 20 pictures in total.