The New Jersey Devils have taken control of the Atlantic Division race, and now they're setting their sights on the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Already holding a 10-point lead in the division, the Devils (28-14-4) can move into sole possession of second place in the conference when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning (24-22-2) on Thursday night in the teams' first meeting this season.
The Devils are 9-1-1 in their last 11 games, winning three in a row three times in that span, and are looking to move within one victory of their longest win streak of the season. New Jersey won five straight from Dec. 1-9.
The Devils have won three consecutive games despite totaling just five goals during the run to increase their point total to 60, tying them with Atlanta for second in the conference. Buffalo, owner of the conference's best record, has slumped of late and is within striking distance of surging New Jersey.
The Devils needed an 11-game season-ending winning streak to clinch the division title last season, but they extended their lead over the second-place New York Rangers to double digits with a 1-0 home win Tuesday. New Jersey opened a three-game homestand before the All-Star break.
"It's never too early to gain ground on teams," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has won each of New Jersey's last three games by one goal. "The more leeway you have on teams around you, the better it is."
Brodeur made 26 saves Tuesday for his NHL-leading eighth shutout of the season and 88th of his career.
Brodeur hopes to overcome his struggles over the past few seasons against Tampa Bay. He's 23-11-1 with five ties and a 2.01 goals-against average in 42 starts against the Lightning, but 3-7-1 with three ties and a 2.68 GAA in his last 14 matchups with them.
The Lightning's season-high five-game win streak ended Tuesday when they fell 4-2 to Toronto. Tampa Bay had won each game during the winning streak by one goal.
"We've got to regroup, get on the plane, go back up north and get back at it again," coach John Tortorella said.
Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier each extend their point streaks for the Lightning.
St. Louis has six goals and 11 assists during his 12-game run, and he's one game shy of tying the franchise record he shares with Vinny Prospal and Brian Bradley.
Lecavalier has eight goals and six assists during an eight-game point streak. He's scored a goal in each of his last five contests, totaling six over that span.
Johan Holmqvist is likely to start in goal for Tampa Bay as he seeks to match a season-high five game win streak. Holmqvist, who has a 2.70 goals-against average in his last four starts, has never faced New Jersey.
He'll look to help the Lightning win four straight road games for the first time since doing so from Jan. 17-Jan. 28, 2006.
The Devils have killed off 12 of 13 short-handed situations over the last six games, but have scored on only three of 30 power plays in the previous seven contests.
The Lightning will play their final game of the first half when they visit Carolina on Saturday before opening the second half at home against the Devils on Jan. 26. Tampa Bay and New Jersey split four meetings last season.
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