NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — When the New Jersey Devils signed Ondrej Palat to a five-year, $30 million contract in the offseason, it was with the hope they would be right where they are now — in the NHL playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
Coach Lindy Ruff will have Palat at his disposal when the series against the rival New York Rangers opens Tuesday at the Prudential Center.
Sure, former No. 1 overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, star defenseman Dougie Hamilton and emerging goaltender Vitek Vanecek are going to have major roles in the best-of-7 battle. But when it comes to the playoffs, Palat — Pally, as he is referred to by teammates — is money.
The former Tampa Bay forward played 138 postseason games with the two-time champions, and 48 goals and 46 assists. Those 94 points are 119th overall in NHL playoff history.
What’s more remarkable is Palat has had only one 20-plus goal season since his first full one with the Lightning in 2013-14.
“I think he puts himself in position to succeed in the playoffs,” Ruff said after practice on Saturday. “I think when you get to the right place enough times and you do the right things enough times, you can take advantage of it, and he has.”
The 32-year-old from the Czech Republic had an injury-hampered first season in New Jersey. He needed groin surgery a month into the season and didn’t return until early January. Overall, Palat played in 49 games and had eight goals and 15 assists. The game total was his lowest since spending the majority of the 2012-13 season in the AHL and playing in just 14 NHL games.
“Obviously, I want to have more goals, more points,” Palat said. “But we’re in playoffs, the real season starts.”
Palat said he never heads into a postseason game thinking he needs a goal or two. He’s role guy, willing to play on any line and in any situation. He has a job to do and he does not feel any pressure.
“Like I said, I was going to play the same way, help the team in any way,” he said. “So if it’s scoring goals, maybe scoring goals, if it’s blocked shots, make blocked shots or things like that. I’ll just do whatever it takes for the team to win.”
The Devils’ roster is full of players who have never appeared in a playoff game. Hughes, who had a career season with 43 goals and 99 points, tops a list that includes Dawson Mercer (27 goals). Hischier (31) and Jesper Bratt (32 goals) have five or fewer games of playoff experience.
Palat told the young crew two things about the playoffs: Enjoy it and realize now that being in it, they can win Lord Stanley’s Cup.
It won’t be easy. While Tampa Bay got close to winning it all in three of Palat’s first six postseasons, they didn’t actually do it until his seventh and eighth seasons. They lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals last year.
Palat said a lack of postseason experience can be an issue.
“I would probably lie if I said it wasn’t, you know,” he said. “Took us eight years or seven years in the playoffs, then we finally got into the finals and then we won and then we won the second. But it took us a lot of years to win. And it’s not easy. You know, somebody never wins. It’s hard, it’s a hard trophy to win.”
The Devils enter the playoffs after posting a 52-22-8 record — the wins and 112 points are franchise records.
The Rangers, who were beaten in the Eastern Conference final by the Lightning last season, had a 47-22-13 record for 107 points.
New Jersey won the season series 2-1, winning one game in overtime.
NOTES: Devils F Timo Meier (40 goals) did not practice Saturday because of food poisoning. Ruff said he is feeling better. … Fourth-line C Michael McLeod returned to practice after missing the last two games.
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