UNIONDALE, N.Y. -– Rallying to make the playoffs is likely more than they'll be able to accomplish. For now, the New Jersey Devils are trying to improve, one game at a time.
They took another step forward Monday, getting goals from five players and 27 saves by Martin Brodeur as they beat the New York Islanders 5-2. The win gave New Jersey a 3-0-1 mark in its last four games -– their best stretch in a season that has seen them drop to the bottom of the NHL standings.
"It was a big game for us," Brodeur said. "We've played well as of late. Playing the Islanders was a big challenge -- they've been playing really well as of late.
"As far as the team is concerned, this is our best stretch. As for me -- you're always judged by winning. That's normal for a goalie. I know I could improve a little bit on my game –- there's things I have to do a little better. But when you win, it's easy to work on these things."
One notable improvement has been the offense. Though the Devils are still last in the NHL in offense, they've scored 18 goals in their last four games -- two wins against Tampa Bay and one against the Islanders, plus an OT loss at Florida on Saturday -- after getting just 72 in their first 41.
"Give me five goals and I'll win a lot of games," Brodeur joked.
Despite the small surge, the Devils are still last in the overall standings, six points behind the Islanders and 24 points behind Atlanta for the last playoff spot in the East. They are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
"We don't look at making the playoffs," said Brodeur, who has been in goal for all four games during the spurt but is still 8-18-1 this season. "Our goal is to try to get back to .500. It's a long way in front of us, but we're going to give it a shot, and we'll see what that number will bring us."
Ilya Kovalchuk, whose first-period power-play goal made it 2-0, said the reason for the improved offense is simple.
"I think we're working way harder than we used to," Kovalchuk said of the team's performance since Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean as coach last month. "Our practices are way more intense, and everybody's getting into game shape. That's why we're working harder and getting chances."
But he also knows a playoff berth is still something the Devils can't even think about now.
"We're still very far away from where we want to be," he said. "We've got a lot of games in front of us. We've just got to keep working."
The Islanders, who started 20-year-old rookie Kevin Poulin in goal, showed little of the energy they had in Saturday's 5-3 win against Buffalo and fell to 1-3-1 in their last five games. No. 1 goaltender Rick DiPietro made 40 saves in that win -- his first appearance since leaving with an adductor muscle strain on Jan. 3 -- but did not dress Monday. A team spokesman said the decision not to dress DiPietro was a "training staff protocol" and that he was listed as a healthy scratch. After the game, coach Jack Capuano termed it a "maintenance day" and said DiPietro was healthy enough to have played if needed.
Brodeur, who was rarely tested until midway through the second period, is now 8-18-1 this season –- but 45-25-6 all-time against the Isles, the most wins he's had against any opponent.
The Devils, who lost their first two meetings with the Isles by a combined score of 7-1, needed less than 5 1/2 minutes to grab a two-goal lead and never looked back against a shaky Poulin.
Russian rookie Vladimir Zharkov opened the scoring at 4:25 by poking a loose puck behind Poulin for his first career goal in 49 NHL games. Kovalchuk made it 2-0 just 57 seconds later when his one-timer from the top of the left circle beat Poulin cleanly for a power-play goal.
"I haven't seen this a lot," Lemaire said of the offensive outburst. "I like it."
It was the sixth time in the last seven games that the Isles have allowed the opening goal of the game within the first five minutes.
Mattias Tedenby made it 3-0 at 6:40 of the second period when he circled the net, carried the puck untouched through the slot and cruised below the right circle before getting Poulin to drop and lifting a backhander over him for his fifth of the season.
It was a big boost for Tedenby, who had been scratched for the last six games.
"I didn't think too much," Tedenby said of his goal. "Just waited and tried to look at Jacques' system when I was scratched, and tried to take it in, so when I hit the ice today, I knew exactly what to do. It was actually good."
The Isles finally showed some life when Blake Comeau took a pass from Radek Martinek for what became a 3-on-1 break. Comeau carried down the left side, cut toward the net and feathered a perfect backhand pass to PA Parenteau for a tap-in at 10:56. It was Parenteau's 11th of the season.
The suddenly invigorated Islanders cut the deficit to one goal 54 seconds later when Josh Bailey carried into the New Jersey zone and slipped a pass through the defense to a cutting Michael Grabner, who whipped a 10-foot wrister past Brodeur's stick for his 11th of the season.
But Lemaire used his timeout to settle his team, and the Devils quickly regained command on goals by Rod Pelley at 16:59 and Dainius Zubrus 54 seconds later.
The Devils then did what they do best in the third period –- play solid defense, limit scoring opportunities and rely on Brodeur to stop anything that gets through.
"I think we were good in the third," Lemaire said. "We didn't get a lot of chances, but we didn't give up a lot, and that means the guys, their defensive game is getting there."
The Islanders, who've been beset by injuries on defense all season, lost Milan Jurcina with an upper-body injury as well as the game.
"I thought in the second and third periods, we played much better," Capuano said of his team's performance. "We had a slow start, and you can't give a team like that a couple of goals' lead like that -- they're pretty solid defensively."