Halfway through the season, the New Jersey Devils are back in playoff contention.
After their 41st game last season, New Jersey was 10-29-2 and in last place in the league, with just 22 points. A miraculous second half comeback couldn't help them dig out of a 27 point deficit to reach the playoffs, and the team missed the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons.
This year is a different story. New Jersey is 23-16-2 at the halfway mark, and their 48 points place them fifth in the Eastern Conference. They've went 10-4-1 over their last 15 games, vaulting them into the middle of the conference.
They've managed to get this far without a healthy roster. Andy Greene continues to recover from a broken toe and has yet to skate. Travis Zajac has only played in eight games because of the lingering issues with his Achilles tendon. Jacob Josefson is skating again, but hasn't played since his breaking his right clavicle a few months ago. Defenseman Anton Volchenkov has missed the past few games, battling a lower body injury.
Coach Peter DeBoer said he's happy with the team's progress, but know's they still have work to do.
"We're progressing, we're heading in the right direction," DeBoer told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "Hopefully, we get some bodies coming back on the horizon here with (Travis) Zajac, (Andy) Greene, (Anton) Volchenkov, (Jacob) Josefson. We've just got to keep doing what we're doing and get some of these guys back."
Martin Brodeur said the team needs to continue turning in solid performances, like they did this past week.
"I think we need to continue on the way we're going now," he told Gulitti. "There will be some bumps. We hit one against Boston the other night (a 6-1 loss on Wednesday). We came back with two big wins and that shows a lot about what we're able to do. We've just got to keep believing in the system and keep working as hard as we can and our big guys will score goals for us and they're doing it now."
New Jersey earned five of a possible eight points last week, going 2-1-1. The week started with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators. David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus scored second period goals to stake New Jersey to a 2-0 lead. Ottawa staged their comeback in the third period, with Jason Spezza scoring just 1:21 into the final period to cut the deficit in half. Erik Condra scored a shorthanded goal to cut to tie the game, the 12th New Jersey has allowed this season.
Daniel Alfredsson played hero in overtime, scoring with 59 second left to give Ottawa the comeback win. That loss snapped a two-game win streak the Devils carried into the week.
The Devils dropped their second straight game, 6-1, Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins. David Clarkson opened the scoring, netting a powerplay goal at 4:24 of the first period. That would be the last time New Jersey held a lead, as Boston went on to score six straight goals. The six goals allowed tied a season high and was the worst loss since the Colorado Avalanche defeated them, 6-1, on November 30.
New Jersey turned it around quickly, defeating the Florida Panthers, 5-2, Friday night at Prudential Center. The game marked a special milestone, as Patrik Elias played in his 1,000th game with the organization. He celebrated by collecting two points (1g, 1a). Tied, 2-2, after two periods, New Jersey scored three goals in the third period to break their losing skid. Elias assisted on Ilya Kovalchuk's game-winning goal at 11:40 of the final period.
The Devils ended their week with a second straight win, defeating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-1, Saturday night at the CONSOL Energy Center. After falling behind, 1-0, New Jersey scored three straight goals over the final two periods for the win. Adam Henrique and Kovalchuk finished with two points (1g, 1a), and Dainius Zubrus added a powerplay tally. It was the team's second straight win over Pittsburgh.
Despite their solid first half of the season, the Devils players know they can't sit back on their success so far.
"There's a lot of hockey to be played," captain Zach Parise told Gulitti after last night's win. "I think coach said a few weeks ago we were 10, 12 points behind these guys (Pittsburgh) and now we're ahead of them. So, we're playing all right. We can still play better, but we're going in the right direction."
New Jersey will kick off the second half of their season with three road games this week against Western Conference teams. Here is the Devils week ahead:
Tuesday, January 10: New Jersey Devils at Calgary Flames - 9:30 p.m. (MSG Plus 2)
New Jersey makes a trip to Calgary for their only meeting with the Flames this season. Calgary enters the week fourth in the Northwest Division. They've won just once in their past four games, defeating the Minnesota Wild, 3-1, Saturday. Jarome Iginla once again leads Calgary offensively, with 33 points (16g, 17a) this season. Olli Jokinen leads all skaters with 21 assists. Last season, the Devils defeated the Flames, 2-1, in a shootout November 24 at Prudential Center. Former Devils head coach Brent Sutter is the head coach of the Flames.
Wednesday, January 11: New Jersey Devils at Edmonton Oilers - 9 p.m. (MSG Plus, TSN)
The Devils play the second of back-to-back games against the Edmonton Oilers in their only meeting of the season. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leads all rookies in points, but is out with a shoulder injury. After getting off to a hot start early this season, Edmonton has fallen to fifth in the Northwest Division. They've lost their last three games, including a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars Saturday. Jordan Eberle is the team's leading scorer in goals (17), assists (26) and points (43).
Saturday, January 14: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets - 3 p.m. (MSG Plus, CBC)
The Devils and Winnipeg Jets meet in the first game of a home-and-home series. The teams have split the first two meetings of the season, each winning on home ice. Winnipeg defeated New Jersey, 4-2, on December 3 at MTS Centre. Evander Kane scored two goals, and Bryan Little added two assists. Ondrej Pavelec stopped 23 shots in the win. Johan Hedberg made 16 saves in the loss.
Goals: Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson - 15
Assists: Patrik Elias - 24
Points: Patrik Elias - 38
Plus/Minus: Adam Henrique - +9
PIM: David Clarkson - 70
Wins: Martin Brodeur - 12
GAA: Johan Hedberg - 2.42
Save %: Johan Hedberg - .913
Shutouts: Johan Hedberg - 2