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Once outsiders, Devils join playoff hopefuls

Wednesday, 03.16.2011 / 4:56 PM ET / News
By Eric Marin
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Once outsiders, Devils join playoff hopefuls
Brodeur says Devils are right in the playoff mix. GETTY IMAGES
A playoff spot once seemed so unattainable that it was all but guaranteed the Devils would be watching the first round from home.

But now that they have sledgehammered their way to within six points of eighth-place Buffalo, they no longer see themselves as a recovering cellar dweller.

Instead, with 13 games left, they’re riding in the pack of clubs with a real shot at the postseason.

“We feel that we’re close and that’s what we look at,” Martin Brodeur said after Wednesday’s practice. “You look at other teams that are close to us and are in the same situation. Atlanta needed to win. You look at Toronto, Carolina – we feel we’re one of those teams, not the team that’s just wishing for a miracle here.

“I think we’ve worked hard enough to get ourselves in a position that we have a decent chance of making it interesting for the teams that are in right now.”

I think we’ve worked hard enough to get ourselves in a position that we have a decent chance of making it interesting for the teams that are in right now. - Martin Brodeur
Expectations have changed – a 23-3-2 surge will have that effect. While pride might have once been all that was on the line, the Devils suddenly have a much more tangible goal in their sights.

“You have to be disappointed if you don’t make the playoffs,” Brodeur said. “I think the first goal of a regular season is to get in the playoffs. I know we came from a long ways to be in that position, and definitely now we’re getting closer and closer. Hopefully the next two weeks will give us a good idea of where we’re going to stand when the last week comes and some of the big games we have to play that week.”

Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Atlanta moved the Devils (33-32-4, 70 pts.) into 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Though they pulled into a three-way points tie with the Maple Leafs and Thrashers, they have more victories than either club. Toronto was set to visit Carolina on Wednesday.

The Eastern logjam has Jacques Lemaire taking a more pragmatic view. His team visits Ottawa on Thursday, and returns to host Washington on Friday. 

“Ask the Buffalo coach and the Rangers coach if it’s easy to make the playoffs,” Lemaire said. “[Ask] the Carolina coach. They’ve been there all year, and I know they still worry. I know that for a fact that they still worry.”

Shouldn’t they be worried about the Devils knocking them out of the top eight?

“I know they’re worried,” he said. “Probably not [of] us, but other teams. You’re asking me about the disappointment, when these guys they’ve been in all the time and they’re worried to make the playoffs. Let us get in and get out so we’re disappointed because we were in. [As of] now, we’ve never been in.

“Guys that have been in this game for a long time, I don’t think they would pick us to get in. Look at the schedule. Look at the teams. We’ve got five [of the next six] on the road. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen.”
Here’s what has already happened: Since managing 22 points in their first 41 games, the Devils have collected 48 of a possible 56.

“It’s something we didn’t think about,” Brodeur said. “We just went out and started playing well and it just snowballed into doing what we’re doing right now. We’ve come a long way. Players individually came a long way, also. We salvaged a really bad season into now being a decent season into hopefully a great season.”

When Brodeur lost 19 of his first 24 decisions, some suggested that at 38, his best days were behind him. The team wasn’t winning and Ilya Kovalchuk struggled after signing a long-term deal over the summer.

Brodeur has silenced murmurs of his decline with a 15-2-1 mark in his last 18 appearances to reach .500 (20-20-2). He has allowed as many as three goals only three times over that stretch, and has limited opponents to two goals or less in his last 11 outings.

Meanwhile, Kovalchuk leads the Devils with 26 goals and had six game-winners during a 12-game stretch in February.

“It’s always what you’ve done lately,” Brodeur said. “You get judged like that all the time, regardless of who you are as a player. The Kovalchuk move was [criticized] at one point, it was like ‘Oh, the worst thing.’ Now we haven’t heard those comments, that it was out of character for Lou [Lamoriello] to do this. Now, it’s just like, hey everything’s fine.”

The results of the first half sometimes made it hard to keep a positive outlook. These days, the sun’s shining a little brighter in Newark.

“You could get really affected by it because sometimes it came fast and from everywhere at one point for our team as far as getting hammered from everybody from everywhere,” Brodeur said. “Now we’ve got the other side where everything we do seems to work out. That’s what hockey seasons are; that’s what hockey careers are made of. It’s the highs and lows and how you deal with it.”

Brodeur’s hot streak is making it tough to rest him for Johan Hedberg. But with six games coming up in 10 nights, Lemaire could look to give Brodeur a game off.

So many decisions for a coach to make.

“That’s why we need naps,” Lemaire joked.

- Brodeur practiced with his retro mask, sticks and pant shells in preparation for Friday, when the Devils will don their original red and green uniforms against Washington.