There are several "do-or-die" games throughout a hockey season, but none more important than tonight.
With their playoff deficit seemingly growing larger daily, the New Jersey Devils (34-35-4) head into their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins (43-23-8) to keep any shred of a postseason dream alive.
New Jersey enters tonight's game trailing the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres by nine points with nine games remaining. They sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, needing to jump three teams just to threaten for a spot.
Despite the deficit, Ilya Kovalchuk believes his team can rebound and complete their miracle run.
"Everybody has to step up because hockey is not an individual sport," Kovalchuk told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger. "Especially these days. Everybody skates well and everybody is watching videos. It's really tough to do anything by yourself."
The Devils hit a rough patch in their quest to climb from league basement to playoff team. They've gone just 1-3-0 in their last four games, allowing three or more goals in each defeat. Their latest loss - a 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins - delivered a crushing blow to the team's playoff hopes. Each team ahead of them won, making the mountain even tougher to climb.
"That's what happens when you get in that situation," Martin Brodeur told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "But I think guys were a little more down after the game (Tuesday) than they were today. You take a step back and you look at the situation, you look at the guys and what needs to be done. It is what it is. We have to try to come through here. We have to go game by game and try to win the next one and we'll move on.
It's not going to be easy. There's no doubt about that."
The Devils face a stiff test against the playoff-bound Penguins tonight. The division rivals have split four meetings this season, with New Jersey winning their most recent matchup on March 4. In that game, a 2-1 overtime win, Kovalchuk played hero, scoring with 25 seconds remaining in extra time for the victory.
Both teams will be without star players for the game. Sidney Crosby continues to battle postconcussion syndrome and will not play despite practicing on the ice for the past few days. Zach Parise, who tore his meniscus on October 30, practiced with the team for the first time since his injury Thursday. Although he traveled to Pittsburgh, he won't play in tonight's game.
This is the second of three straight games against playoff-bound teams for New Jersey. They end their road trip Saturday with a matchup against the Sabres.
Kovalchuk stressed the importance of focusing on their game tonight and not the overall picture.
"It's the same approach," Kovalchuk told Gulitti. "It's still one game at a time. You can't control your own destiny. We need help from the outside, but first we have to take care of our business."
General manager Lou Lamoriello knows the odds are stacked against his team. Despite those long odds, he knows the players believe they can make the postseason.
"Knowing this group, absolutely," Lamoriello told Chere. "Let me put it to you this way: I'd be disappointed if they didn't."
Playoff Tracker 2011
There are three games on the schedule that directly affect the Devils push to the playoffs tonight. Here are those games for all you scoreboard-watching out there:
Florida Panthers at Buffalo Sabres (7:30 p.m., HSBC Center) - As stated above, the Sabres sit nine points ahead of the Devils, holding the eighth (and final) spot in the playoffs. The Panthers lead the series, 2-0-1, coming into the final meeting. Anything but a loss hurts the Devils chances.
Carolina Hurricanes at Tampa Bay Lightning (7:30 p.m., St. Pete Times Forum) - The 'Canes hold the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, six points ahead of New Jersey. Once again, the Devils need a Carolina loss to move up the standings.
Vancouver Canucks at Atlanta Thrashers (7:30 p.m., Philips Arena) - The Thrashers are currently 11th in the conference, two points ahead of the Devils. These teams constantly flip-flopped during the second half of the season, with each moving no higher than tenth in the conference. Once again, a loss here helps the Devils tremendously.