After break, Devils seek higher ground
|Zajac entered the Olympic break on a four-game points streak (2g-3a).|
Having collected four medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the Devils visited San Jose, where they began their 21-game march to the postseason.
Martin Brodeur and Jacques Lemaire each captured gold with Team Canada, courtesy of Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against the United States on Sunday.
It’s the second gold medal for Brodeur, who backstopped Canada to victory over the U.S. at Salt Lake City in 2002. He was 1-1 in Vancouver with a 2.90 goals-against average and .867 save percentage.
Zach Parise, whose goal with 24.4 seconds left in regulation forced Sunday's extra session, and Jamie Langenbrunner, who captained the U.S. squad, each left British Columbia with a hard-fought silver medal in tow.
For his four goals and four assists in six games, Parise was one of three Americans selected as an Olympic All-Star, joining Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Detroit’s Brian Rafalski. Langenbrunner may be best remembered for his game-winning tally against Canada in the preliminary round, but also added three assists, including one on Parise’s goal in the gold medal match.
Other Devils contributors at the Games were Patrik Elias, who notched two goals and two assists in five games for the Czech Republic, and Ilya Kovalchuk, who posted a goal and two assists in four games for Russia. Devils assistant coach Tommy Albelin served as an assistant for Team Sweden.
After San Jose, the Devils’ three-game western swing continues with stops in Calgary on Friday and Edmonton on Sunday. Jersey’s Team is hoping to come out of the break rested and refreshed. New Jersey has won just five of its last 17, and lost, 5-2, at Carolina on Feb. 13 in their final game before the two-week hiatus.
“I think it was a little bit of us being tired,” said Travis Zajac. “It was a lot of hockey and mentally we weren’t as sharp as we usually are. You could see it on the ice when things weren’t going right, we weren’t skating, we weren’t moving the puck as good as we usually do. I think the rest is going to help us get refocused and back on track.”
One-third of the ZZ Pops line with Parise and Langenbrunner, Zajac is confident that the Devils have the right pieces in place. They entered Tuesday’s action with a one-point lead over Pittsburgh atop the Atlantic Division.
“We know the type of team we have,” Zajac said. “Upfront we have some skilled forwards who can put the puck in the net. On the back end, our defense has been great all year. They haven’t given up much offensively and they’re going to continue to do that. We have a great group of guys and we’re excited to see where these last 20 games take us and get ready for the playoffs.”
David Clarkson’s imminent return would get the Devils one step closer to something they have lacked all season: a fully healthy lineup. The crash-and-bang winger has appeared in only two games since suffering a non-displaced right leg fracture at Boston on Nov. 27.
Defenseman Paul Martin, out since Oct. 24 with a non-displaced left forearm fracture, is the last piece of the puzzle. He has been skating on his own, and could be back as early as next week when the Devils host the Rangers and Penguins.
How the Devils perform down the stretch could depend on all of their key players getting a clean bill of health.
“That can make a difference,” Brian Rolston said. “It can definitely make a difference on our power play. I think Clarkie is a guy that will help our power play. I think we needed it, mentally and physically. We were battling trying to get points and just couldn’t do it. It’s a good mental break away from the game, and now we can get back to it and play the kind of hockey that we know how to play.”
Apart from three pairs of consecutive days off, the Devils face a jam-packed schedule in the month ahead. They host Pittsburgh, the Rangers and Boston twice, and will make trips to Long Island, Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia.
Here’s how the remainder of the schedule breaks down:
Remaining games: 21
vs. Atlantic -- March 10 Rangers; March 12 Penguins; March 17 Penguins; March 25 Rangers; April 10 Islanders.
vs. Northeast -- March 15 Bruins; March 30 Bruins; April 11 Sabres.
vs. Southeast -- None.
vs. Central -- March 20 Blues, March 23 Blue Jackets; April 2 Blackhawks.
vs. Northwest -- None.
vs. Pacific -- None.
vs. Atlantic -- March 13 Islanders; March 28 Flyers.
vs. Northeast -- March 18 Maple Leafs; March 27 Canadiens.
vs. Southeast -- April 3 Hurricanes; April 6 Thrashers; April 8 Panthers.
vs. Central -- None.
vs. Northwest -- March 5 Flames; March 7 Oilers.
vs. Pacific -- March 2 Sharks.