Nick Palmieri (32) Ilya Kovalchuk (center) and Mark Fayne #34 of the New Jersey Devils celebrate a goal by Kovalchuk during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks on February 11 2011 at the Prudential Center in Newark New Jersey. Devils won 2-1. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
On January 7, the New Jersey Devils (now 26-30-4) barely had a pulse.
The team sat dead last in the entire league, a position entirely unfamiliar to recent fans. Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't buy a goal, goaltender Martin Brodeur looked old and the offseason acquisitions of Jason Arnott, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov looked foolish. Even restoring Jacques Lemaire as head coach did little to help the team.
On that cold day in January, the dam around the Devils finally burst. In what seemed to be a move that signaled defeat, New Jersey sent captain Jamie Langenbrunner to the Dallas Stars for a conditional second-round draft pick. The disgruntled Langenbrunner finally found a new home, and the Devils looked to be sellers.
But then the Devils came back to life.
The revitalization began in a 2-1 loss to the Flyers on January 8. It was another loss in a series of them, but the Devils looked better. Their game was crisper, their scoring chances better, and their energy high. Brodeur replaced Johan Hedberg and rediscovered his game. The future Hall-of-Famer stopped 19 shots to keep his team in the game.
The loss didn't start the team on the right track. But it set them up for their wild second-half ride.
Since that loss to Philadelphia, the Devils are 17-1-2. The team has put together several win streaks, the most recent a seven-game stretch where they've allowed eight goals. Kovalchuk is riding a 11-game point streak, the longest of his career. Patrick Elias continues to produce, and Brian Rolston has undergone a rebirth playing with the Devils' center.
New Jersey has found new ways to win. The Devils have scored five-plus goals in four of their wins. New Jersey has a 9-0-1 record in one-goal games during their current streak. The Devils have recorded three shutouts - against Pittsburgh, New York and Dallas- showing a vastly improved defense.
Will the Devils make the playoffs? They'll need some help to complete that miracle comeback. After Tuesday night's game, New Jersey sits just nine points behind the Carolina Hurricanes for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. But they still sit 13th in the conference, and will need to leapfrog five teams. Only one team - the Florida Panthers - will fall quickly out of the race. That leaves four teams to jump to complete a historic run to the playoffs.
Even if they fail to reach a 14th consecutive postseason, the New Jersey Devils did the unthinkable. They could have tanked the season and fought for a first-round pick. They could have dumped all of their expensive vets and stocked the roster with rookies. No one would have blinked.
Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello stood pat, and it's worked for the better. Lemaire has the Devils playing like, well, the Devils. They're a solid defensive team, they're responsible with the puck and they're finally scoring goals.
It's been a wild ride during this Devils' surge. Games are exciting again. Fans are no longer anticipating watching the Devils blow games. The team rallies when down and squeezes out wins. They're a confident bunch, and it's created a better on-ice product.
There's no way to tell whether New Jersey will complete its miracle playoff run. But one thing is certain - these Devils are alive and well, and won't go away without a fight.