Something finally clicked, and the Albany Devils are playoff bound.
They had a disappointing first season back in the Capital Region three seasons ago, then were in the playoff hunt the past two seasons before faltering late.
This year’s squad, though, is on a four-game winning streak entering tonight’s season finale against Springfield at 5 at the Times Union Center, and has clinched a playoff berth. Tonight’s game, and a couple others around the league, will determine which seed the Devils receive and who they play in the first round.
“It’s exciting,” said Albany centerman Darcy Zajac. “It’s almost been four years for me. It’s been a lot of hard work, individually and as an organization, as a team. I’m excited for what’s to come, excited to be in. This is the most fun time of the year.”
Zajac was a senior four years ago with the University of North Dakota, making his fourth appearance in the NCAA tournament. His career there included two trips to the Frozen Four.
“Every year up to then, I was in a postseason in whatever league I was in,” he said. “It gets frustrating not being in, but that makes this year that much more enjoyable.”
Defenseman Dan Kelly came into the league at the same time and has worked through 232 games with Albany to earn this berth. He went to the Memorial Cup finals with the Kitchener Rangers in 2008. They were in the postseason three of his five seasons with them.
His rookie season in the AHL, the Devils weren’t quite “on point,” he said, but have gradually improved.
“Slowly but surely, we’ve put a team together,” Kelly said. “We were close the last two years, but this year, there’s no excuse to not be in it. We made that push, and last weekend was huge, winning all three games. It just showed the character of this team.”
The 2008-09 Albany River Rats, then affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes, made it to the playoffs. That season also was the last season a Devils affiliate made it, as it was the lone berth earned by the Lowell Devils.
Before this four-game winning streak, the Devils had just one win in seven games, putting their playoff future in doubt. Kelly said they recovered because their captain righted the ship.
“We have some great leadership in the room with Rod Pelley,” he said. “A little kick in the butt. Guys realized all these points are critical.”
Albany is 9-3-2-1 in the last 15 games, a stretch that has been dismal the past three seasons.
The shootout win Wednesday at Portland also gave Rick Kowalsky, in his fourth season as an AHL head coach, his first playoff berth.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “What’s most exciting about it — obviously, as a coach, you want to win every year — but I think what’s most exciting about it is the potential that this team has to make some noise in the playoffs, as well.”
The Devils have been able to maintain their form late, and now New Jersey has sent them a handful of players to aid in the postseason run. Albany enters tonight with 17 forwards on the roster and 11 defensemen, giving Kowalsky some decisions to make, and he’s glad for the option.
He is especially glad to have defensemen Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas back to work the power play. In their combined 27 games with Albany this season, they had three goals and six assists on the power play, accounting for 60 percent of their overall point production.
“They’re obviously going to be impact players for us, all of them,” Kowalsky said. “But getting those two back, in particular, gives us a much different look on the power play, which, this time of year, could be key.”