NY Islanders Johan Sundstrom and NJ Devils Patrik Elias wait for the puck drop.(Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)

Devils on the Rise

Since Jacques Lemaire took over as coach and Jamie Langenbrunner headed to greener pastures in Dallas, the Devils have seen a miraculous turnaround. After having won only 10 games in the first half of the season, they’ve gone 13-1-2 since they began the second half.

Since the start of the second half, the Devils have a .875 winning percentage. They are currently leading in the last ten games in the East with an 8-1-1 record. Goaltender Johan Hedberg has helped contribute to that record going 4-0 since Martin Brodeur was sidelined temporarily with an injury to his knee.

Even more promising for the Devils in this second half is that every single top eight team they’ve faced in these last 16 games, they’ve beaten. As in, they’ve won every single matchup against the top eight. From Philadelphia (1), Tampa Bay (2), Pittsburgh (4), Montreal (6), Rangers (7) and Carolina (8), they’ve beaten them every single time.

The Devils are on a do or die mission: It’s playoffs or bust. Their goal is to approach this feat one game at a time. It’s about taking one step in the right direction, rather than focusing on the chasm that separates them from the end result.

Even though they are winning, Lemaire always reminds everyone that he is not completely satisfied with the win.

“[I am] very happy on certain things and less on others,” he said after the game.

Every single win is far from a perfect game. His aim is to force them to become better than the team that performed the night before. They are far from perfect.  They need to work harder, because their effort is not 100-percent.

“[I am] very happy that we played as a group,” Lemaire said. “I think we moved the puck well, skated well. We had guys that I didn’t expect them to play as well as they did.

“The first guy who comes to my mind is Clarky (David Clarkson).   think he played his best game since I’ve known him. He was good with the puck. He skated, hit, played good defensively. I was pleased with his performance.”

Lemaire’s push is what will take them to the last game of the season. They will either see themselves as one foot into the playoffs, or one foot out. How they perform from here on out will solidify which side of the fence they are on. If they are on the playoff side, Lemaire just may be coach of the year.

In the past, the Devils have been known to do the impossible. This season is no exception. They work well under this type of pressure.

This season, they’ve watched as a struggling Ilya Kovalchuk finally found his game and tallied his 20th goal of the season against the Hurricanes Wednesday night. This marked his ninth consecutive season with 20 goals or more.

They’ve watched Brodeur go down, and witnessed his backup take the team to its next win. They’ve watched their best forwards sitting on the sideline, and for some reason, the team continued to win. It wasn’t so long ago that Patrik Elias made his historic return to the ice back in 2006 that allowed the Devils to steal away the Atlantic Division title.

The Devils have seen their toughest monsters on their quest for the Holy Grail. They’ve seen it all throughout their franchise history. Right now, it’s all about preparation for the final feat. Each game is a battle that must be won in order for them to make it to the next level.

Their win over Carolina on Wednesday proved that their shot at the final spot in the playoff berth may become a reality. The line of Elias, Brian Rolston, and Dainius Zubrus has come to save the day each and every night. Their work together is shining through and through.

Rolston commented after the win that he hadn’t played this well since he played in Minnesota under Lemaire. This, in itself, is excellent news since he was placed on waivers twice since Lemaire’s arrival. After his return to the team, the turnaround has sparked something new inside of him. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

In Wednesday’s contest, both Mark Fraser and Troy Bodie dropped the gloves just 1:47 into the first period.  Both teams ended the first period scoreless as they held each other off throughout the first 20 minutes.

Kovalchuk grabbed his 20th goal of the season in the second stanza after he outmaneuvered Joe Corvo, and sent a sniper shot past Cam Ward at 5:41 (see the video above) to give the Devils a 1-0 lead at the end of the second period.

With Colin White (hooking) and Jussi Jokinen (diving) called for penalties with 1.9 seconds in remaining in the period, both teams started the final period with a 4-on-4.

Kovalchuk said the tactic going into the period was to have a solid first five minutes. So it came as no surprise that Rolston scored a goal just 34 seconds in followed by Elias at 1:59 to give the Devils a 3-0 lead.

But as the Devils are aware, the ‘Canes can come back in the most humiliating ways reminiscent of the 2009 playoffs that created the biggest upset in less than 90 seconds. Sergei Samsonov was able to get the ball rolling as Carolina finally got on the scoreboard at 8:17.

“We started to turn the puck over too much at a certain time,” Lemaire said of the things he didn’t like about the Devils’ performance. “We took bad penalties.  All these things can bring a team like Carolina right back into the game. It doesn’t take too much to get them back in a game. That’s a good team and they take advantage of every mistake you make.”

As the seconds dwindled down, and with the ‘Canes sending out the extra attacker, the Devils didn’t attempt to just go for the empty net. They carried the puck into Carolina’s zone, which meant they had to fight off the defensemen. One too many times, they carried the puck into the zone, and dumped it in. They never attempted to send the puck into the empty net. That decision cost them another goal as Tuomo Ruutu tallied a goal with just 4.1 remaining.

The Devils were able to fend off the Hurricanes in the remaining seconds to win the game, 3-2.