WASHINGTON (AP) It took erasing a three-goal deficit for the New Jersey Devils to solidify a franchise-record regular season and send them into the playoffs on a high note.
Next up, the New York Rangers.
The Devils rallied to beat the Washington Capitals 5-4 in overtime Thursday night on Luke Hughes' first NHL goal in just his second game. Their 52 wins and 112 points are the most in franchise history - something players valued before turning their attention to the first round.
“Ultimately we wanted the record and that was kind of the message in the locker room and the chips usually fall in place how they’re supposed to,” said Erik Haula, who scored twice. “I think everyone’s expected us to play the Rangers for the past six weeks or so, so here we are and we’re excited to get started.”
Miles Wood scored on the power play as part of the comeback, and Dougie Hamilton tied it with 7:37 left in the third period. It would have taken beating the Capitals and Carolina losing at Florida to win the Metropolitan Division, but the Hurricanes' victory locked New Jersey into the second seed and the first postseason matchup against the Rangers since the 2012 Eastern Conference final.
“We’re going to play a good team with a lot of experience and a great goaltender,” coach Lindy Ruff said of the Rangers, who went to the East final last year and still have reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin in net. “We know we’ve got our hands full.”
Aiming for first place in Game 82 took a back seat to being as healthy as possible for Game 1 of the playoffs Monday or Tuesday. New Jersey opted to rest top goaltender Vitek Vanecek, veteran forward Ondrej Palat and defensemen Ryan Graves and John Marino.
Starting in place of Vanecek, Mackenzie Blackwood was pulled after giving up four goals on 11 shots. Blackwood allowed goals to Joe Snively, Rasmus Sandin and Craig Smith on the first five shots he faced in 10-plus minutes and got the hook when Tom Wilson scored 1:05 into the second period.
Akira Schmid, recalled from the minors to back up, stopped all 20 shots he faced in relief to give the Devils a chance to come back.
At the other end of the ice, Darcy Kuemper made a handful of big saves among his 29 before allowing two goals in the third period and Hughes' goal with 26.4 seconds left in 3-on-3 OT. New Jersey's top prospect, Hughes was playing in just his second pro game after playing his final season at the University of Michigan.
Fittingly, brother Jack Hughes assisted on it for his 99th point of a season that has him in consideration for MVP votes beyond slam-dunk winner Connor McDavid.
“Your first goal, you never forget it,” Luke Hughes said. “It was awesome to be out there, and with Jackie assisting it, it was pretty cool.”
Despite Washington having nothing to play for, captain Alex Ovechkin returned after missing the past three games with an undisclosed injury.
“I was feel pretty good to play,” Ovechkin said. “So, we just make a decision that I’m gonna be in the lineup.”
The Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14, ending a streak of eight consecutive appearances that was tied with Nashville for the second-longest in the league. Pittsburgh’s run of 16 in a row also ended.
Devils: Open the playoffs next week against the Rangers.
Capitals: Face an uncertain offseason that could include a coaching change.
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