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The New Jersey Devils will be making their 10th consecutive playoff appearance, but they won't be doing it under coach Claude Julien.
With general manager Lou Lamoriello taking over behind the bench, the Devils continue their push for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs when they host the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.
Despite leading the Devils to an Atlantic Division-best 47-24-8 record this season, Julien was fired Monday with a week left in the regular season.
"I don't think we're at a point of being ready both mentally and (physically) to play the way that is necessary going into the playoffs," Lamoriello said. "I am not saying that is going to change. But I think there has to be better focus going forward."
The firing isn't the only time Lamoriello has made a late-season coaching move. He fired Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the 1999-2000 season and Larry Robinson led New Jersey to its second Stanley Cup title.
"You don't always judge by wins and losses as far as where you are at," Lamoriello said. "The way we put ourselves in this organization, you have to look at the big picture. To say that 102 points today isn't an excellent accomplishment, it's extremely positive. But I have to look at a lot of factors."
The Devils and Senators (47-24-8) are tied for the second-best record in the East and have already clinched postseason berths. Both teams, though, are still fighting for playoff position.
New Jersey is trying to hold off Pittsburgh in the Atlantic, while fourth-place Ottawa is fighting for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Lamoriello is taking over a New Jersey team that has won four of its last five games after dropping three in a row by a combined score of 12-4. A major factor in the Devils' resurgence is the return of some of their key players.
In the last week, New Jersey has welcomed back three of its top nine scorers. Forwards Patrik Elias, John Madden and Brian Gionta had all missed time with groin injuries before rejoining the team for the stretch drive.
Gionta returned on Sunday to score the game-winning goal in the Devils' 3-1 victory over Boston.
"This is huge," said Gionta, who had missed 19 of 21 games. "We need everyone healthy going into the playoffs. We have three games left to get the full team together and be able to go into the playoffs confident about our game and each other."
Scott Gomez, third on the team with 60 points, missed Sunday's contest with a bruised thigh. His status for Tuesday is uncertain, but he should be healthy in time for postseason play.
"It's great finally getting everyone back," said Jay Pandolfo, who scored twice Sunday. "Hopefully Scott will be back in a game or two and we can have everyone going at the same time and get a couple of games under our belts before the playoffs."
The Devils will face an Ottawa team that has won eight of its last 10 games to crack the 100-point mark for the fourth straight season.
Mike Comrie scored two goals to lead the Senators to a 5-2 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday. Comrie has three goals and two assists in his last two contests.
"He's been playing really well like that the last few games," coach Bryan Murray said. "He's always had the work ethic, and he goes to the net, and that's how he gets most of his goals."
The Senators' hot streak has given them a one-point lead over Pittsburgh in the race for home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Playing at home could be a major advantage for Ottawa, which is 16-2-2 there since Jan. 7.
The Senators, though, have also improved on the road, where they have won four straight and earned a point in eight straight games.
"We're just going to try to play well every night," Murray said. "As long as the guys work hard every game, it really doesn't matter if we wind up in fourth or fifth. We've been playing well lately on the road, so it's not a concern."
Ottawa beat New Jersey 8-1 in their first matchup this season, but has since lost both meetings. Gionta scored the game-winning goal to lead the Devils to a 3-2 victory on Jan. 6.
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