By Steve Lichtenstein
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“All trade deadline sellers, please form a line to the left.”
“Not so fast, New Jersey Devils.”
The Garden State boys were teetering on the brink of destruction heading into Tuesday’s must-win battle against the rival Rangers at Prudential Center. The Devils had lost their previous three games, all to division opponents.
With the Feb. 29 trade deadline fast approaching and the Devils on the outside of postseason position in the Eastern Conference, another defeat could have made general manager Ray Shero think long and hard about trading whatever chips he has in exchange for future assets.
But his team played a desperate game to match its desperate situation in beating the injury-depleted Rangers, 5-2. The win enabled the Devils to keep pace with some of the other victorious teams ahead of them in the standings while maintaining their one-point lead over surging Carolina.
The Devils are only a point behind Pittsburgh for the eighth and final playoff seed, but the Penguins have three games in hand.
They are also a much better team, with not one but two transcendent players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The other clubs the Devils are chasing, such as the Red Wings, the Bruins and the Islanders, are also miles ahead of them in terms of paper talent.
In fact, it’s downright astonishing that the Devils, now 30-24-7, have managed to play as well as they have this season given all the retreads getting major ice time. For much of the last week they had 29-year-old winger Tyler Kennedy on the first-unit power play (he was moved to the second unit on Tuesday). He would be like the 10th option on a true contender.
That the Devils are still in the hunt is a testament to coach John Hynes and the work ethic of the players in the locker room.
“We have a prideful group,” Hynes said. “The fact that we hadn’t won three games in a row, we were cognizant of that. We had confidence in our game even though we didn’t get results the last week.
The Devils’ five-goal outburst on Tuesday was sorely needed to stop the bleeding, even if it was abetted by the absences of Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal.
New Jersey got a big game from rookie winger Sergey Kalinin, who went for the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” — a gorgeous breakaway goal that increased the Devils’ lead to 4-2, an assist on Kennedy’s first-period redirection, and a second-period fight with Rangers winger T.J. Miller, who was tossed for punching with his wrist taped.
When asked whether he had ever even heard of Howe, the 24-year-old Kalinin said, “I’m from Siberia, but we have the Internet.”
Fellow rookie Joe Blandisi added two primary assists in the second period. The first came on a neat pass across the crease to Kyle Palmieri for a power-play goal that tied the score at 2 midway through the period. With two minutes left, Blandisi fed Lee Stempniak for a one-timer to give the Devils the lead for good.
“I don’t want to let our secrets go, but we worked on a couple of different plays in practice,” Blandisi said of the set up to Palmieri. “I think it was flowing pretty well tonight. That was definitely one of the plays that we had drawn up but we have a few in our repertoire.”
Stempniak’s goal was his second game-winner this season against his former club.
“That was a great pass from Joe,” Stempniak said. “I was able to get a lot on it and I think it went off one of their guys and in. I was in the right spot at the right time for that one.”
The 33-year-old Stempniak is often the first Devil mentioned when NHL experts speculate who will be available for late-season rentals. He is on an affordable one-year, $850,000 contract and despite having just two assists in his last nine games prior to Tuesday, he still leads the Devils with 40 points.
The problem is that the Devils’ return on a deal for Stempniak probably wouldn’t match his value to the team. Maybe Shero could get a mid-round draft pick or a lower-level prospect, but not much more.
The same could be said for similar overachievers such as defensemen John Moore and David Schlemko.
The Devil who could most help another playoff team and could really use a change of scenery is Travis Zajac. He’d be a solid third-line center as he has won more than 50 percent of his faceoffs in each of his 10 NHL seasons.
But good luck getting someone else to take on the remaining five years of a contract with an annual value of $5.75 million for a player who hasn’t surpassed 20 goals since 2009-10.
As a fan, I would love for Shero to take advantage of the nearly $8 million he has in salary cap space and go for the playoffs this season, but deadline buying does not appear to be an option either, according to media room chatter.
Instead, the best Devils fans can hope for is that Shero stands pat. Maybe the return of winger Mike Cammalleri, who was leading the team with 38 points before he went out with an upper-body injury (believed to be his hand or wrist), will act as a boost similar to an acquisition.
That is, if he returns.
“Michael is one of those situations where it’s day-to-day slash week-to-week,” Hynes said of Cammalleri, who hasn’t dressed since Jan. 26. “We’re trying to figure out what’s best for him and what his recovery is to get back. It’s an injury that has good days and bad days.”
Hynes told the media before the game that he has had meetings with Shero regarding the state of the team, but he wouldn’t let on as to what direction the GM was leaning heading into the Devils’ last two games (at Columbus on Thursday and at home on Friday against Tampa Bay) before deadline day.
“We haven’t focused on that as far as what’s going to happen on that day,” Hynes said. “It’s more about he and I talked about each week what are we going to do. Our conversations this week have been to try to get ourselves back to winning ways and at the end of this week, let’s see where we’re at.”
No matter what, Shero won’t be holding a strong hand on judgment day. The Devils have been too good to suddenly go into tank mode for a top draft pick and they’re likely not skilled enough to sneak into the postseason. Any deadline selling probably won’t be of much help to the future given the paltry value of the goods that we expect to be placed on the market.
Might as well let the season play out.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1