It’s that feeling that comes with seeing the final piece of a large puzzle, sitting on the table and waiting to be placed.
That’s how the Albany Devils have to feel about seeing Dan Kelly skating in practice and getting ready for this weekend.
When a wave of players broke into or back into the lineup this weekend — some returning from injury like Kelly, some returning from recalls and some coming to the league from college or juniors — the Devils found some energy and have crept within three points of the final playoff berth with nine games to play.
The only player that remained unfit to suit up was Kelly, who missed eight games while recovering from a lower-body injury. Now, he’s one of 31 healthy bodies on the roster.
“I feel good, physically,” he said Thursday after practice. “I’ve been skating a lot. I did double practice last week. They’ve been trying to get me into it, so I’m ready for a game. As soon as I get the call, I’ll be ready.”
That could happen as soon as tonight’s game against Providence at 7 at the Times Union Center. The Devils also play at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday at 7:05 p.m., then will host Rochester on Sunday afternoon at 4.
Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said there would be a meeting Thursday afternoon to figure out just how much action Kelly will see this weekend, but it will likely be one game, possibly two.
“He gives us more depth on D, more options,” Kowalsky said. “His grit, his defensive ability to play against the top lines — he’s a pain in the butt to play against. You can’t get enough of that. He blocks shots, he’s a huge part of our penalty kill. If we can get him back, it gives us more depth, defensively, to match up against some of the teams’ top lines.”
This season, Kelly will wind up having played the fewest games of any of his three so far with Albany. He has, though, been solid when he’s been healthy.
In 44 games this season, he is a plus-10 with 62 penalty minutes, two goals and six assists. Last season, he had a plus-six and 93 PIM with two goals and four assists in 54 games. As a rookie, he was a plus-seven with 71 PIM, two goals and five assists in 61 games.
“It’s something I pride myself in,” Kelly said of the plus-minus rating. “I’m not out there to score goals, and I’m not going to be a power-play guy. But the plus-minus and the PK percentage are the stats I look at. I’ve got to be out there stopping goals, so that’s what I pride myself on.”
Of course, he can help more with that if he can stay out on the ice longer, and he wants to be one of those defensemen Kowalsky can count on for long minutes and plenty of them.
“It’s all about managing the game,” Kelly said. “I feel great, but I’m not going to be able to jump in the rush, which isn’t my game, anyway. But I feel ready for those minutes, you’ve just got to manage them well. Get the puck out when you get your chances, and we’ve got to stay out of the penalty box.”
The penalty kill was pretty good in the first half of the season, but has had a success rate of just 76.7 percent in the last eight games without Kelly. In the eight before that, they were killing penalties at an 82.4 percent clip.
They will need to be reliable down the stretch against some of the top teams in the league. Six of the seven teams left on the schedule are in the playoff hunt.
“This team’s responded to the top teams in this league,” Kelly said. “We always play our best games against them. You know what? I have faith in the guys. We have a good group of guys here that can elevate their game, and they’ve shown it in the last couple games, that they can skate with the big clubs. We’ve just got to keep pushing.
“You’ve got to come to the rink ready to work every day. These guys aren’t going to roll over and give us two points. It doesn’t matter if they’ve locked up spots or not. They’re all competitive, they’re all fighting for spots up in the big league, and there’s always someone watching. Our guys are here to battle. We know what we need to do. It’s do-or-die time for us, and we can’t lose games. It’s playoff hockey now, and you can definitely feel it in the room.”