A night after clinching their fourth Atlantic Division title in five seasons, the Devils closed out the regular season with Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres. The victory locked them into the second seed in the Eastern Conference, setting up a first-round meeting with Philadelphia when the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs begin this week.
Jamie Langenbrunner’s empty-net power-play goal broke a 1-1 tie with 3.6 seconds left in regulation.
The Sabres, needing a regulation win to secure the second seed, pulled goaltender Patrick Lalime while shorthanded for the final minute of play. Lalime collided with referee Steve Kozari as he skated to the bench, and Langenbrunner blasted his 19th into the empty cage.
Travis Zajac also scored for the Devils (48-27-7), who wrapped up the 2009-10 campaign by winning four of five. New Jersey finished the year just three victories shy of matching last season’s franchise-record 51.
The Devils learned during the first intermission Sunday that they would face either Boston or Philadelphia. That’s when the Flyers edged the Rangers, 2-1 in a shootout, to lock up the seventh seed and end New York’s playoff hopes. The game ended with Brian Boucher stopping Olli Jokinen's shootout attempt.
The Devils-Flyers series will open Wednesday at Prudential Center. Jersey's Team dropped five of six regular-season meetings with the Flyers, most recently a 5-1 loss at Philadelphia on March 28.
“As you can tell, we can’t pick the teams,” said head coach Jacques Lemaire. “We wanted to win and that’s what happened tonight. You know it’s going to be a battle as it has all year. [The Flyers] are a good team. They’re well-balanced. Definitely, we’ll have to play better than we did in the regular season.”
Langenbrunner said the team's priority was to enter the postseason on a high note without worrying about their first-round opponent.
"Our focus all along, especially in these last few weeks, was to be playing well and take care of our own business," said the captain. "Get wins, play good hockey and finish as high as we possibly can. Whatever that matchup was going to be it was going to be."
Martin Brodeur needed 22 saves for his NHL-best 45th victory and captured his fifth William Jennings Trophy for the fewest team goals allowed in the League. The Devils allowed a stingy 191 tallies and beat out Boston, which allowed 200.
“We wanted to come into the playoffs playing well, and I think we’re playing well,” said Brodeur, who allowed seven goals over his last seven starts, including two shutouts.
To Brodeur, the Jennings Trophy was an added bonus to yet another outstanding season in New Jersey. He previously won the Jennings Trophy in 1997, 1998, 2003, and 2004.
“It’s a tribute to the players that play in front of me,” Brodeur said. “Every day they go out and pay attention defensively. Especially for Yann [Danis], in his first year to be able to go out and be a part of it is kind of nice because he was definitely a big part of it this season.”
Brodeur wasn’t among the Devils that watched the shootout in the dressing room during the first intermission. The team found itself in the odd position of almost being able to choose their first playoff opponent.
“It’s interesting just because it’s the Rangers and the Flyers, it’s two big rivals, so we were intrigued to see what the outcome was,” Brodeur said. “You go through the game, and I don’t remember being a part of that: with every shot in a tie game, you could almost decide if you wanted to play them or not. For a hockey player, it’s not a good feeling. You just want to play and not worry about who you’re going to face.”
He sees a challenging series ahead.
“It’s a team that we had our share of problems with this year,” Brodeur said. “But I think it’s a good thing because it’s going to keep us accountable to what we have to do to be successful. We’ll get ourselves ready. I’m sure the coaches will take a look at some of the games we’ve played and see what we need to improve to be more successful against these guys. It’ll be a big challenge, there’s no doubt about that.”
Following a scoreless opening period, Buffalo went ahead 1-0 on Thomas Vanek’s 28th in the second. Derek Roy took two whacks at the side of the net during a scramble, finally centering to Vanek for a one-timer at 1:10.
Zajac, who matched a career best with three assists on Saturday, tied the Sabres with his 25th goal of the season. Paul Martin put a wrist shot on net from the blueline, and Ilya Kovalchuk nudged the rebound over for Zajac’s backhander at 6:27. Zajac capped off a terrific campaign in which he set new career highs in goals and points (66). His 42 assists matched last season's career best.
NJD NOTES Lemaire's team overcame its share of adversity this season. But injuries to David Clarkson, Paul Martin, and Dainius Zubrus never slowed the Devils, who defied the odds at every turn.
"I think the guys have good character," Lemaire said. "They want to win. They do their best every night – most of the time. I think we’ve got a decent team, starting in net. You look at our defense: this year, I was really impressed with the way our defenseman played all year. Our top line was great all year. Then you’ve got Kovalchuk who’s bringing more offense."
• Clinching the second seed ensures that the Devils would have home ice advantage through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Is that a positive?
"It definitely could be," Langenbrunner said. "We have to get that other round first. We had the extra home game last year, too, and we didn't put ourselves in that situation." • Langenbrunner was one of the Devils that did take a peek at the Flyers-Rangers shootout.
"I don't think that's how they drew up the shootout when they instituted it – to decide a playoff team like that?" he asked.
There are no shootouts in the playoffs, though, and Langenbrunner's just fine with that.
"You play this game as a team, you battle to do some things," Langenbrunner said. "To let a skills competition decide a playoff spot is kind of tough."
Zajac wasn't interested in the Flyers-Rangers outcome.
"I didn't really care," he said. "You don't want to start thinking about stuff like that during the game. I don't think, to us, it mattered who we were going to play. We're just happy to finish in second place here. It was a great season for us and hopefully we can continue that into the playoffs."
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1 - 0 BUF
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