ALBANY, NY — Walk out of the Albany Devils locker room, make a left and a quick right. The 40-foot path leads to the Times Union Center ice. The walk has been made countless times during the 2013-14 season whether it was for games or practices.
For the next five months, the carpet leading the way won’t have to bare the load of 25-plus hockey players. The stalls have been packed, the ice has been removed and the offseason has begun for the Devils.
After splitting Games 1 and 2 on home ice in front 14,598 fans during the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Albany lost Games 3 and 4 at St. John’s to close out the season. The team made its first postseason appearance since 2010.
“After we settle down for a couple of days there’s going to be a lot of positives,” said General Manager Chris Lamoriello. “Certainly the type of year that we had, getting a team in the playoffs, playing Games 1 and 2 here and certainly playing in front of the crowd that we played in front of both nights, seeing the excitement and feeling the excitement that they had, definitely there will be a lot of positives for us to be able to look back on.”
The Devils entered the postseason as the fifth seed and matched up with the fourth-seeded IceCaps. Currently, the Calder Cup Playoffs are in the second round and the top three teams in the Eastern Conference have been eliminated. If the Devils had downed the IceCaps, they would have had home ice advantage for at least the next two rounds.
“We thought we had a team that could have done some damage,” said assistant captain Tim Sestito. “It will sting for a bit, but this summer when we look back, I think, everybody should be pretty proud of what we accomplished.”
The playoff race down the stretch of the regular season was tight to say the least. In 2012-13, the Hershey Bears earned the eighth spot with 81 points. In 2013-14, they missed out in ninth place with 88 points.
Albany ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak and finished with a franchise-best 40 wins and 93 points. It was a change of pace for the Devils, who stumbled in March and April during the previous two seasons to miss out on the league’s tournament.
“The last couple of years have been tough,” said Head Coach Rick Kowalsky. “We’ve been in spots where we’ve been close, but we’ve always been chasing from behind. I think the difference this year is we could give ourselves a little cushion. With that being said, we still had to pretty much win-out to get in, but we did it and we did it with a lot of pressure from behind us.”
This year’s team excelled in both the offensive and defensive zones and the results fluctuated between high-scoring wins (8-6 vs. Bridgeport on Nov. 30) and low-scoring affairs (2-0 vs. Hershey on Mar. 15).
The Devils built confidence early, winning five of their first seven contests and posting a six-game winning streak between Nov. 20 and Dec. 14.
“We got off to a great start,” Sestito said. “There was a belief that we could and should do well and I think that snowballed throughout the year. Confidence was pretty high for everybody throughout the season and that’s a big part of why we made the playoffs.”
Management, coaching staff and the team’s leaders were tasked very early on in getting the most out of one of the youngest clubs in the league. Of the 35 players to wear an Albany sweater this season, 15 were either in their first or second AHL seasons.
Kelly Zajac finished second on the team with 44 points and Reid Boucher finished tied for second with 22 goals. Blueliner Seth Helgeson played in 75 games and was a +12, while his defensive partner Corbin McPherson was a team-leading +16.
“There were a lot of positives this year,” Kowalsky said. “We were concerned at the beginning about youth and we put that to rest real quick. We relied on some young guys to do some big things for us and they did. They were a group that got along and it translated onto the ice.”
According to Sestito, the players in the room now know what it takes to not only make the playoffs, but do well once the postseason begins.
In the end, all but one team exits the current season without disappointment. But the feeling on Monday when the team held its exit interviews was one of optimism and eagerness.
“I was talking to the coach and we can’t really believe the season is over,” said captain Rod Pelley. “It doesn’t feel like it. In past years, this time of the year, you’re pretty drained. I’m ready for camp to start. It doesn’t feel like we’ve ended. I feel pretty fresh and I think that’s a positive thing.”
“We’ve raised the bar,” said assistant captain Chris McKelvie. “The expectation in the locker room is to keep pushing forward and keep building off of this year. The attitude is going to just keep improving and the tightness of the team will keep improving, which will obviously help on the ice.”
The NHL Draft and free agency will certainly change the personnel within the locker room. Regardless the Devils 40-foot walk to the ice won’t change and the grueling-fun of trying to return to the playoffs awaits the team in October.