In the span of less than four minutes, starting late in the first period and running three-and-a-half minutes into the second, the Devils scored three goals. The first came from David Clarkson on the power play, his 30th of the season.
Just after exiting the penalty box, Carolina's Jeff Skinner earned himself a second penalty—unsportsmanlike conduct this time—for arguing with the refs. The Devils failed to score on the power play, but did beat Canes goalkeeper Brian Boucher just six seconds after it expired, when Ilya Kovalchuk ripped the puck into the bottom corner of the net.
The third goal came from Ryan Carter on a two-on-one with Steve Bernier, just the fourth goal of Carter's season.
The Devils came into tonight needing one point to clinch a playoff berth, and the 3-0 lead early in the second was enough to make that seem reasonable. Sure enough, the 5-0 win gave the Devils the points to return to the postseason for the 20th time in 22 seasons.
Last season was disastrous by Devils' standards.
After making the playoffs every year since 1995-96, an abysmal first half kept the Devils from ever getting a shot at breaking the bubble late in the season.
Coming into this season, expectations were high, but there was that scary feeling that things could go as awfully as they had the season before.
Of course, that was not the case.
The Devils didn't start out superbly, nor have they had any remarkably dominant stretches all season. But they've played consistent, solid two-way hockey, and it's paid off in the results.
This will mark the first chance Peter DeBoer has had to coach in the NHL playoffs. He failed to qualify in his three seasons with the Florida Panthers, though he has experience winning on lower levels: He took home the Memorial Trophy with his Kitchener Rangers.
Beyond the flurry of three goals, the Devils scored twice more.
Late in the second, Petr Sykora beat Boucher with a wrist shot off the faceoff before anyone knew what was happening; the play is one that's been used throughout the season, and Sykora has found success with it so far.
The last goal came from Zach Parise after a beautiful setup from Kovalchuk left him with far too much open space to work with. He beat Boucher easily with his quick release.
On the defensive end, Martin Brodeur stopped 22 shots for his third shutout of the season.
A goal and two assists was enough to earn Kovalchuk the first star of the game, followed by Sykora with a goal and an assist and Patrik Elias with two assists.
The Devils are the fifth team in the East to clinch a spot, and the fourth from their division—the Boston Bruins have also clinched.
Of the three games the Devils have remaining, one is against an eliminated team, the New York Islanders. They also play the Detroit Red Wings before finishing off the season against the Ottawa Senators.