Stingy defense key for low-scoring Devils
Looking to win their sixth straight at home tonight against Pittsburgh, the Devils (28-31-4) have scored two goals or less in seven of their last 10 games and each of their last four. There's been no harm done because they've been excellent defensively, limiting opponents to two goals or less in 11 straight games, including two shutouts.
“Best part is we don’t give up a lot of goals,” Lemaire said. “What we have to improve is getting more. I think all the players are focused on what they have to do, they know exactly now all the details the little things we have to do to be a better team.”
The Devils sit 10 points behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot with 19 games to go and three games in hand. With teams trying to pick up as many points as possible during the season’s stretch run, every club is clamping down defensively. Lemaire said the only way to increase goal production is to get more shots to the net.
“I haven’t seen teams in the past, all the teams play as good as they are right now,” he said. “To me, we have a better offense than last year, and last year we had 14, 16 chances [a game], now they’re down to eight because teams are playing good. We’re not giving a lot either. So when you get to 10 [scoring chances] it’s a big night.”
The power play has connected for two goals in 10 chances over the last four games – room for improvement there, as well.
“On the power play we move the puck extremely well,” Lemaire said. “We’ve good control, we move the puck, but we don’t score. We’ve got to get the shot, we’ve got to go at the net more. If one thing is really important to win and to be a better team, it’s the power play.”
The Devils are showing poise in close contests. Twelve of their last 14 games have been decided by one goal, including eight of their last 10 victories.
"I think it’s a great quality," Lemaire said. "I don’t think it’s more stress. You get used to playing in that environment, and you feel comfortable."
New target in playoff chase
Carolina’s overtime win over Buffalo on Thursday coupled with the Rangers’ loss to Minnesota means the Devils are now chasing their cross-river rivals for the final postseason spot in the East. With 71 points, the Hurricanes moved one ahead of the Rangers for seventh place.
Martin Brodeur, who starts tonight, followed the scoring updates on his cellphone. The Devils lost a point in the playoff hunt without even playing a game.
“Again, take one step forward, we don’t play, we take one step back, Brodeur said.
Brodeur and the Devils are fighting to stay in the mix. Toronto, in 10th place, has points in nine straight games. Buffalo, in ninth, has points in five straight.
“We know there’s three teams up there now with Buffalo that just joined the group,” Brodeur said. “Now you’ve got the Rangers, you’ve got Buffalo and Carolina, so two of these three will make it and you’ve got to try and join the group of three to make it a group of four. Toronto’s going forward also, and the Islanders are right behind us. We’re not by ourselves in wanting to get that one spot.”
New York visits Ottawa tonight, and in a matter of hours the Devils could be pursuing Carolina again. This race isn’t down to Devils and Rangers just yet.
“For us, we don’t see it like that; we see it as just want to get in somehow and make these last 19 games really important for everybody,” Brodeur said. “We knew we were so far back and now we got ourselves into a really good position for where we were at before, and try to take advantage of it, see if we can mess up anybody.
“It would be great, and by that same token, try to get our foot in the playoffs. You saw what teams did last year with Montreal and Philadelphia, how well they did, so you never know. But it’s a long way ahead. I think it’s surprising to see the Rangers were able to come down like that. Us going up, I think people in this area are always looking at the matchup between each other.”
Brodeur believes this late push is different than the run to end the 2005-06 season, when the Devils won the final 11 games to complete the biggest come-from-behind division title in NHL history. They trailed first-place Philadelphia by 19 points in Jan. 6.
“Because we’re not in a [playoff] spot, we don’t see it like that,” he said. “We’re moving forward as a team as far as the way we play and the way we’re getting our points, but we’re not gaining ground. It’s been maybe a week or two now that we’ve lost one game and we haven’t gone anywhere: it goes to nine, goes back to 11, back to nine, back to 11. Mentally, if you look at it a lot like that, it becomes tough because you feel you’re not rewarded for what you’re accomplishing.
“I think Jacques makes a point for us just not to look at it and just play each game and let’s see how it’s going to fall. We can’t control what the other teams will do. We can control how we’re going to play the game and how we’re going to be successful and that’s it.”
Clarkson expected to play
David Clarkson was excused from the morning skate to be with his wife Brittany, who gave birth to the couple’s first child. They welcomed new daughter McKinnley, who weighed in at 7 lbs. 4 oz., measuring 19 1/4 inches.
Steckel back at it
David Steckel reported some jitters during his Devils’ debut on Wednesday. Lemaire said his new centerman will need an adjustment period to get fully comfortable.
“It’s going to take a couple of games,” said the coach. “It’s different. I’m sure we play a little different than Washington, we do things a little different. He’s going to get used to that. He’ll be fine.”