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The most important player in franchise history is on his way back for the New Jersey Devils, but Martin Brodeur's teammates hardly look like they need him.
The San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, suddenly look like they need help holding onto the Western Conference lead.
Brodeur has returned to practice as he works his way back from elbow surgery, but it will be goalie Scott Clemmensen coming off back-to-back shutouts Sunday against the Sharks, who are trying to avoid a third straight loss to close their road trip.
The Devils (36-17-3) could have panicked after losing their four-time Vezina Trophy winner to injury in early November, but instead they've gone 29-10-1 since Nov. 15, riding Clemmensen's surprisingly strong play to the second-best record in the East.
They've been especially good lately, allowing just two total goals during their three-game winning streak and going 12-2-0 in their last 14 to seize an eight-point lead atop the Atlantic Division.
New Jersey is still facing a steep climb to catch Boston for the conference's top seed, but Friday night's 1-0 shutout of the Bruins - behind 31 saves from Clemmensen - certainly didn't hurt.
"We've really made a strong push to get to the top of the standings," Clemmensen said. "If we're going to make that next push and be an elite level team in this league, we've got to beat teams like this."
Clemmensen also blanked the New York Rangers on Monday night in his previous start, and he hasn't allowed a goal in his last seven periods.
For the season, he's 24-11-1 with a 2.23 goals-against average, but he's also headed for a backup role within 10 days, the possible timetable for Brodeur's return to the crease.
"It won't affect me, in how I prepare for games or my confidence level," Clemmensen said. "It's something good. I just take it one day at a time and if they need me to play, I'll be ready."
Two days after beating the East's top team, New Jersey will be challenged again by the Sharks, who lead the West. San Jose is second in the league in goals per game (3.4) and third in goals allowed (2.36).
But the Sharks (37-7-9) are just 1-1-4 in their last six games, and their lead over Detroit atop the conference has shrunk to two points. After beating the Bruins 5-2 on Tuesday night, they have continued their five-game trip with shootout losses at Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
San Jose allowed a combined 71 shots in its last two games, surprising considering it ranks among the league leaders with 27.2 shots allowed per game. It also gave up five or more goals for just the sixth time this season in Friday night's 6-5 loss to the Sabres, falling behind 3-0 in the first 15 minutes.
"The slow start kind of hurt us," said center Joe Thornton, who had four assists. "Once this team turns it on, it's pretty hard to stop. But we have to do it for 60 minutes."
The struggles on their current trip have dropped the Sharks to 14-5-6 on the road this season, and they've also dropped three straight at New Jersey.
San Jose is 1-3-2 in its last six games overall against the Devils dating to the 2000-01 season.
While they struggled offensively against the Bruins, the Devils are still averaging 3.02 goals - up from 2.41 last season. Zach Parise has already reached career highs with 34 goals and 67 points, while Patrik Elias' 22 goals are his most since the 2003-04 season.
|Feb 15 '09||SJS 5 at NJD 6||D. Clarkson|
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