Without Taylor Hall, the New Jersey Devils wouldn’t have even sniffed playoff contention this season. That is an indisputable fact.
The 26-year-old has scored 37 goals and 89 points. He’s contributing 1.2 points per game and is leading New Jersey in scoring by a whopping 38 points. He has seven game-winning goals, and has found twine 24 times at even strength, 12 times on the power play and even notched a shorthanded tally this past week. He’s skated huge minutes down the stretch, too, averaging 19 minutes for the season, but flirting with 20 per night over the past month and a half. When the top-three for the end of year awards are announced, Hall will have more than earned his spot among the top Hart Trophy candidates, too. He has been a force to be reckoned with as the Devils drive their way towards the post-season.
Despite everything Hall has done, though, Devils fans should be thanking backup-turned-starter Keith Kinkaid just as much as they praise their star winger if the campaign ends with New Jersey earning their first playoff berth in six seasons. And that’s not exactly a scenario many Devils faithful would have foreseen when the campaign began.
To say Kinkaid was an afterthought entering the season wouldn’t be accurate, but the reality of New Jersey’s goaltending situation is that the 28-year-old was considered to be a distant second on the depth chart behind Cory Schneider. That’s not without reason, of course. Over the past four seasons, Schneider had been the backbone of the Devils defensively, a rock in goal who, even with a stumble in 2016-17, had posted a stellar .919 save percentage, 2.32 goals against average and commendable 89-98-38 record across 232 games in New Jersey almost in spite of the organization’s lack in depth or top talent. Yes, he struggled mightily last season, posting a career-worst .908 SP and 2.82 GAA and Kinkaid had posted superior marks in both regards, but the prevailing belief was Schneider would return to form and thus the crease was his to lose.
In the early season, Schneider, 32, seemed to have proven last season to be nothing more than a blip on the radar, too. He was rock solid during the front half of the campaign, and by the time the end of December rolled around, Schneider made last season’s unsightly numbers a distant memory by posting a .920 SP, 2.59 GAA and 17-7-5 record in 30 games. Kinkaid, on the other hand, seemed as much a backup as ever. He had a 5-3-1 record, .893 SP and bloated 3.49 GAA to start the new year.
It was around that time, though, that the roles began to reverse. Three weeks into January, after Schneider had already missed three games with an illness, the Devils lost the veteran keeper to a groin injury that would eventually cost him more than a month’s worth of action. While Kinkaid was dealing with a groin ailment of his own, he was healthy enough to enter action on Jan. 30 and posted a 27-save victory over the Buffalo Sabres. And though it took Kinkaid a while to get rolling — he stumbled out of the gate in Schneider’s absence with a .889 SP and 6-4-1 record across seven starts as the No. 1 netminder — he has been the most reliable goaltender the Devils have had at their disposal for nearly two months and one of the best things going in a crease anywhere as New Jersey drives towards the post-season.
Kinkaid’s numbers speak for themselves over the past several weeks, too. Since Feb. 15, when he started to find his groove in the Devils’ crease, Kinkaid has turned in a sparkling 13-3-1 record in 17 starts while posting a .930 SP. Of the 21 goaltenders who have seen at least 15 games over that same span, only Anaheim’s John Gibson, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick and Washington’s Philipp Grubauer have been better. At 5-on-5, Kinkaid has been just as solid, as well, turning in a .936 SP in 833 minutes, putting him 10th among the 29 goaltenders who have played 500 or more minutes at five-a-side since mid-February.
To fully grasp the importance of Kinkaid’s play down the stretch, however, it’s also imperative to understand two things. The simplest is that the Devils, realistically, have had no other option in goal. Because though Schneider has been healthy since March 1, he has turned in a .862 SP and 3.82 GAA in four starts since getting back to action. That’s nowhere near good enough, and if New Jersey had even as low as a .900 SP as a team since Feb. 15, they would have allowed somewhere in the range of 100 goals against. That would have almost assuredly sunk the Devils’ playoff hopes.
The other is that Kinkaid’s play has been integral in earning the Devils points on nights when the offense alone (read: Hall) hasn’t been able to take control of a contest. Since Feb. 15, New Jersey has the NHL’s 15th-ranked offense and ranks 18th in the league with only 44 goals at 5-on-5 over that span. That has meant Kinkaid has had to bail his team out or make a crucial, potentially game-saving stop on a number of occasions. In fact, of the 18 games Kinkaid has played since mid-February, he has helped the Devils win eight one-goal games and pick up a point in nine contests that have been decided by a single marker. And given New Jersey currently sits a mere five points clear of the Florida Panthers, who have a game in hand, for the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference, it’s clear the importance of every single one of the points Kinkaid has helped the Devils earn.
Kinkaid could put a stamp on his importance to New Jersey’s playoff aspirations as early as Tuesday night, too. If he can backstop the Devils to a victory over the rival New York Rangers — and if Florida drops their game against the Nashville Predators — New Jersey will officially book their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12. No matter when the playoff clinching game comes, though, it would be incredibly fitting for Kinkaid to be between the pipes.