It’s come down to this for the New Jersey Devils (30-32-4).
Despite an unbelievable second-half run that’s seen them climb from the league basement to a playoff race, New Jersey believes tonight’s game against the Atlanta Thrashers (28-28-11) determines everything.
“We go to Atlanta,” Ilya Kovalchuk told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger. “That team will be desperate for points. They still believe they can do it, too, so it will be a huge game. For us it will be do or die, that’s for sure, because we can’t afford to lose two in a row.”
The Devils, 20-3-2 in their last 25 games, hit a bump in their playoff push Tuesday night. Facing the last place Ottawa Senators, the Devils couldn’t manage to gain a point, losing 2-1 in regulation. Erik Condra played hero for the Sens, breaking a 1-1 tie with 2:13 remaining in the third period. The loss snapped a five-game win streak for the Devils, who can’t afford to miss any points.
Entering tonight’s game, New Jersey sits 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. They need to leapfrog ninth place Carolina, 10th place Toronto and the Thrashers with just 16 games remaining.
Tonight will be the first of two meetings between the two teams in five days. New Jersey enters tonight three points behind the Thrashers. The next two games will be critical to the Devils’ playoff hopes.
“These are important games because to achieve our goal we need to pass these guys,” goaltender Martin Brodeur told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “We know that we’re playing them twice in the next three games, that they’re three points ahead of us. We have one game in hand. So, it’s important, real important. I think everyone is aware of the situation and how important it is like all of the other games, but more and more when you get closer to the end now there are teams that we can’t give them a point. You’ve just got to win and you’ve got to win and then you move on to the next one and make that game another important game.”
Tonight marks the first visit for the Devils to Phillips Arena since they were thrashed, 7-1, on December 18. Brodeur and Johan Hedberg allowed seven goals in one of John MacLean’s last games as a head coach. Kovalchuk noted that, this time, the circumstances are quite different.
“We were a totally different team when we played the first game against them there,” Kovalchuk told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger. “The last time we played them we were in bad shape. A lot of fans were excited. They beat us like, 7-1. We have to respond the right way. We’re in the same position with them. It will be a huge four-point game.”
Atlanta may be without one of it’s top players tonight. Dustin Byfuglien, who missed Wednesday night’s game with a lower-body injury, is a game-time decision.
The Devils are looking to avoid their first losing streak in over two months. With only 64 points, the Devils know they can’t afford to lose out on too many more points.
“Especially in our situation right now, we still have to keep doing what we’ve been doing well and try to get as many points as possible,” Devils coach Jacques Lemaire told Gulitti. “There’s a lot of good teams that are ahead of us and others that are good behind us. But the bottom (line) is to try to beat them, try to get as many points as we can get.”
Hedberg believes the Devils can’t afford another poor performance.
“We know we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Hedberg told Gulitti. “Pretty much every team plays the same way right now. It’s very tight. No one is really opening up and it doesn’t matter if some teams are out of it. There’s a lot of guys playing for jobs, playing for pride. There’s not any nights you can take off.
“I still think we’ve got to just take care of our own business. If we deserve to be there, we’ll be there.”
Playoff Tracker 2011
There are two other games of importance to the Devils tonight. While New Jersey can’t leapfrog any teams in the standings, the outcomes of these games will determine the point gap facing New Jersey tomorrow.
Boston Bruins at New York Islanders (7 p.m., Nassau Coliseum) – The Isles sit 14th in the Eastern Conference, a mere two points behind the Devils. It won’t hurt New Jersey if the Isles win, but it certainly won’t be helpful to be sharing the 12th seed.
Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals (7 p.m., Verizon Center) – The ‘Canes enter tonight’s game sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference, eight points ahead of the Devils. Clearly, a loss (coupled with a Devils win) will help shrink the deficit.