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As five years of hockey frustration ended for the New Jersey
Devils Josh
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, 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 postseason 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. Patrick 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 Nick
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, 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.

Center Travis Zajac skated behind defenseman 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 Jacoby
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, 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 defenseman 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 Brandon
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, 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 center 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 http://www.chicagobearsteamonline.com/prince-amukamara-jersey ,
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.

UP NEXT

Maple Leafs: Host Montreal on Saturday night in regular-season finale.

Devils: End the regular season at Washington on Saturday night.

More NHL hockey:

Texans General Manager Brian Gaine described contract talks with linebacker
Jadeveon Clowney as “amicable” earlier this week, but those nice feelings are
reportedly not going to generate an agreement on a long-term deal.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Clowney is expected to play out the
final year of his deal. It’s something that’s been discussed as a possibility
for some time and Clowney’s health is the biggest reason why the team would like
to wait on any new deal.

Clowney played 16 games for the first time in his NFL career last season, but
had arthroscopic knee surgery after the season and isn’t practicing fully yet.
Gaine has said on multiple occasions that he is going to stick to the Texans’
tradition of not negotiating contracts once the regular season gets underway,
which leaves Clowney tasked with staying healthy and productive as he pushes for
a commitment from the team.

Should Clowney do that and fail to sign a deal with the team in the first
weeks of the offseason, the franchise tag could be in play to ensure Clowney
remains in Houston.

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