The New Jersey Devils (32-32-4) second half run helped the team move from last place to playoff contenders. But it also helped the Devils achieve something few thought was possible – a .500 record.
Tonight, New Jersey will look to move past the .500 mark for the first time this season against the Atlanta Thrashers (29-28-12) at the Prudential Center.
When Jacques Lemaire took over behind the Devils bench for John MacLean on December 23, the team was in absolute shambles. Their record of 9-22-2 put them last in the league with little hope of the postseason. But a 22-3-2 run has them sniffing the postseason for the 14th consecutive season.
Lemaire never envisioned the team getting to .500.
New Jersey’s unbelievable second-half run has them just eight points behind the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
It hasn’t been easy to move up the standings. Despite a 7-2-0 run in their last nine games, the Devils cut their point deficit from 10 points to eight. A win tonight would be another step forward for the Devils playoff chances, putting them 10th in the Eastern Conference.
New Jersey has won two of the three from the Thrashers this season, the most recent a 3-2 win on Friday. Travis Zajac played hero, winning the game in overtime. With the Devils on a 4-on-3 powerplay, Patrik Elias fed Zajac near the side of the net. The Devils’ center had an open net to shoot into for the game-winning goal.
One-goal games have become commonplace for the Devils. Their last nine contests have been one-goal games, with New Jersey winning the last two in overtime.
Martin Brodeur will once again start for the Devils. The future Hall-of-Famer is 6-1-0 with a 1.51 goals-against average in his last seven starts.
Zajac To Tie Devils Ironman Streak
The Devils won’t only be looking to gain two points in the standings tonight. By playing in his 388th straight game, Zajac will tie Ken Daneyko for the most consecutive games played in franchise history.
Zajac downplayed the achievement.
“I knew it was coming up this week,” Zajac told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “I don’t know if it’s as big a deal as (the media) are making it, but I’ve been pretty fortunate to stay healthy for most of my career. The trainers here are good and the trainers in the summer all make sure I’m able to play all these games.”
Zajac last missed a game on October 24, 2006, against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a bruised thigh. The Devils center believes he’s taken simple steps to staying healthy.
“I think I’ve learned to take care of myself better, just knowing what to eat and how much rest to get, stuff that makes you feel better on the ice,” Zajac told Gulitti.
Zajac will have an opportunity to break the record Thursday night in Ottawa.
Playoff Watch 2011
The Devils need help from other teams above them in the conference to cap their miracle run to the playoffs. Here are the games of interest to the Devils tonight:
New York Islanders at New York Rangers (7 p.m. MSG) – While the Islanders trail the Devils in the standings, New Jersey will be closely watching the outcome of this game. The Blueshirts hold the eighth seed in the conference, eight points ahead of the Devils.
Carolina Hurricanes at Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m., HSBC Arena) – In a perfect world, neither team would earn points. But someone has to win, and neither helps the Devils. Buffalo is tied with the Rangers in the standings, but holds the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Carolina sits in ninth, four points ahead of the Devils. The worst scenario would be for each team to earn at least a point.