While the New Jersey Devils seem likely to finish second in the Metropolitan Division and get home-ice advantage for the first round of the postseason, first place also is a possibility
Especially if the Devils get a favorable result Saturday when they visit the Chicago Blackhawks, about an hour after the first-place Carolina Hurricanes begin their game at the Montreal Canadiens
With seven games, left New Jersey (47-20-8, 102 points) is one point behind Carolina for the division lead. Carolina has eight games left and the teams both have 35 of their 47 wins in regulation.
Both teams are playing a back-to-back set, as the Devils visit Winnipeg on Sunday while the Hurricanes host the New York Islanders
The Islanders handed the Devils their most lopsided loss of the season Monday when they pulled away for a 5-1 win, but New Jersey responded with a sound defensive showing in a 2-1 win over the visiting New York Rangers Thursday
"Defensively it was a huge game for us and feel like we're getting ready for the playoffs and it's huge for us," New Jersey goalie Vitek Vanecek said.
New Jersey's third win over the Rangers gave them a four-point lead over their rival for second in the Metro. Erik Haula scored about five minutes in and Timo Meier added a power-play goal late in the first period in a game that the Devils allowed just 25 shots. Vanecek made 24 saves and joined Martin Brodeur as the second goalie in team history to reach 30 wins
"I think we stuck with it and tried to take away some of their creativity and rush chances and, for the most part, I thought we took a step," Haula said. "It was a full game, it was tight, and (all their lines) can score, so I thought we executed our game plan pretty well."
Besides looking to get into first place, the Devils are one win shy of tying their third-best win total in a season. The Devils last won 48 games in the 2011-12 season, the year they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final
The Blackhawks (24-45-6, 54 points) are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the fewest points in the NHL. But they will be buoyed by the return of captain Jonathan Toews to the lineup for the first time in more than two months
Toews hasn't played since Jan. 28, sidelined by the effects of long COVID-19 and chronic immune response syndrome.
"He said he's all good today, feels really good and he's like, 'Well, it's not going to be perfect, it might be ugly,'" Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said. "I said we're a little bit ugly right now, so you'll fit right now.'
Chicago heads into Saturday on a seven-game losing streak, one shy of its season high. Since a 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators on March 16, the Blackhawks are getting outscored 31-10 while allowing the first goal in five of those games
Chicago's latest loss was a 5-3 setback to the visiting St. Louis Blues, when it allowed two goals in a span of 38 seconds in the second period after Andreas Athanasiou scored the tying goal on a power play.
"It's frustrating," Richardson said. "I'm sure the guys are frustrated. They put a lot of really good effort in. They did what we talked about all day, really good start. We just didn't have the finish. We just don't have that natural finish. Maybe that's just where our squad is right now, but I liked how we pushed back."
--Field Level Media