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Devils Entering Crucial 12-Day Stretch

-- See In Lou We Trust for more about the Devils -- Joe Fortunato has more on the week ahead for all three local hockey teams

The next 12 days may determine whether or not the New Jersey Devils can continue their miracle run.

Only a month ago, the Devils faced the near-impossible task of playing competitive hockey. Even with interim coach Jacques Lemaire working the team hard, the Devils struggled on the ice. The offense couldn't score, the defense was porous, and goalie Martin Brodeur looked below average. Things were bleak for the boys in red and black.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a lottery pick. New Jersey started playing better hockey. The offense started to score, the defense buckled down, and Brodeur returned to form. The improvement, however positive, was not leading to wins on the ice.

Jan. 9 would change that.

On that Saturday night in Newark, the Devils hung six goals on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Down, 2-1, after two periods, New Jersey rallied for five goals in the third period. It was a breakthrough effort, and one which would spark the floundering Devils.

Since that comeback win, New Jersey is 9-1-2 in its last 12 games. The Devils have outscored opponents, 41-24, and scored five-plus goals in four wins. They have gone 3-0-1 since the All-Star break, returning to the on-ice product that led to 13 straight playoff appearances.

The team's current run helped them dig out of their immense hole. They no longer sit last in the league, moving slowly up the standings. What was a 27-point deficit for eighth in the conference shrunk to 16 last night.

Despite all the good news, the Devils season could hinge on the next 12 days.

Beginning Tuesday, the Devils will face the Carolina Hurricanes three times in a 12-day stretch. Carolina, currently in eighth place, has 58 points. Three wins against them could put the Devils only 10 points away from a playoff spot with 30 games remaining.

The players realize their opportunity.

"In the next (12) days we've got three games against them," left-winger Ilya Kovalchuk said to Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "That will probably be the key stretch for us. If we want to make a real push, then we have to get points in those games."

With an already stunning turnaround, the Devils have people believing they can make a miracle run. But players still refuse to look at the bigger picture.

"We're still not looking at it," center Travis Zajac told Gulitti. "We've got a long ways to go. Our mentality has been taking it a game at a time, being prepared every game and trying to win as many games as possible. Right now, we're doing that and we've just got to keep it that way and stay focused."

But that doesn't mean players aren't considering the possibility of making the miracle comeback. If they can play well in the next 12 days, the possibility of making the playoffs will be very real.

"We'll see what happens the next 15 games," Kovalchuk said to Gulitti. "If we're going to keep playing like that, you never know."