But despite another dramatic one-goal victory on Saturday, a 3-2 overtime triumph over the New York Islanders that lifted the Devils to 32-32-4 on the season, Lemaire refuses to discuss his team's playoff chances until the Devils are no more than five points from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
As it stands right now, the Devils, who've never been at .500 during the season, are six points out. After a 10-29-2 first half, they are 22-3-2 in their last 27 games with 14 matches remaining.
"Ask me at five (points out)," Lemaire told the media with a grin. The one-goal victory was the 12th over the last 14 wins by the team.
Not only did rookie Jacob Josefson score the first goal of his NHL career, but defenseman Anssi Salmela became the most unlikely of heroes when he connected for his first goal in 13 months with 1:51 remaining in overtime to seal the deal before a packed house at Prudential Center.
"I never thought (reaching .500) would happen," said Lemaire, whose team stood 9-23-2 when he was hired to replace John MacLean on Dec. 23. "The hill was too high to even think about it."
Salmela's goal was his first since Feb. 8, 2010, in Philadelphia. Salmela scored his first of the season after taking a pass from Mattias Tedenby in stride in the neutral zone, crossing the blue line and ripping a shot past defenseman Radek Martinek and into the top far corner past goalie Al Montoya.
"It's a relief really," Salmela said. "I've had so many chances and felt like I wasted a lot of opportunities. I know defensemen shouldn't score that much, but you kind of feel bad when you're not taking advantage of scoring chances. In overtime, there's open ice and you can go. I know you can't try too much, but 4-on-4 is a different story -- even a defenseman can jump in."
But Salmela's big chance wouldn't have been possible if not for goaltender Martin Brodeur. Even though Brodeur needed just 13 saves to earn his 19th win of the season, his stop on rookie Michael Grabner was the save of the game.
With the Islanders holding a 2-1 lead and the Devils working the power play early in the third period, Grabner broke in alone against Brodeur. The future Hall of Famer held his ground and denied Grabner with his waffle. Just 31 seconds later, David Clarkson jammed home his 10th of the season off a great individual effort in the slot on three pokes to pull the Devils into a 2-2 tie at the 5:42.
"It's probably the turning point of the game right there," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We could have gone up 3-1 with a goal there, but how many times you see it. They come down and score right away. So that was a big save, but that's what Marty does."
Brodeur, who played his seventh straight game since returning from a knee injury, earned his sixth win while allowing just 11 goals over this seven-game stretch.
"All game long on the power play, we weren't successful offensively and we allowed a lot of chances defensively, so I needed to come up big," Brodeur said. "You never know what will happen after something like that, but I think that gave us a little boost."
"It was a big save," Lemaire said. "Marty was very patient."
Lemaire said Clarkson, who registered five shots, two hits and two takeaways on a line with rookies Josefson and Tedenby, played his best game of the season.
"I had four whacks at it," Clarkson said of his goal. "I'll take it. It was a great play by Jo to me in the middle and I just kept working. I didn't know it was in until guys started celebrating. Now, we have to keep rolling in the right direction.
"I think you always have something you dream or believe you can do, and I believe this team can keep rolling the way we've been rolling," Clarkson added. "We're playing good in our zone, we're chipping pucks by teams and winning battles down low … that's all hockey is about right now -- winning battles. And when you're shooting the puck like Anssi did for the winner is huge."
Montoya was splendid in defeat with 32 saves, including 14 in the third period.
The Islanders, 10-4-3 over their last 17 games, are nine points back with 12 games remaining.
The Devils finished 0-for-5 on the power play after going 3-for-6 in a 3-2 overtime victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday. A big part of the Islanders penalty kill was Montoya, who made 10 of his saves with his team a man short.
The Devils picked up where they left off following their OT win in Atlanta on Friday when Josefson scored his first NHL goal just 1:57 into the game. After gathered a pass from Clarkson, the young Swede circled the Islanders net before backhanding a shot at the left post that caromed off Montoya's left skate and into the net. Clarkson made sure to collect the puck.
"I just tried to get it to the net and try for the rebound, but it went in," Josefson said.
"Part of being successful is having different players come through," Brodeur said.
Said Lemaire: "It can't always be Kovy, Kovy, Kovy," referring to Ilya Kovalchuk, who's been carrying the load offensively for the Devils during the surge.
If not for Montoya, who made seven saves in the opening 20 minutes, the Devils could have led by two or three goals. His finest stop came 15:15 into the first when he denied Nick Palmieri's quick snap shot from the slot. The first-period shutout by New Jersey marked the 16th straight Lemaire's club has held the opponent scoreless.
The Islanders pulled even 1:13 into the second on a brilliant individual play by Blake Comeau. Isles defenseman Jack Hillen blocked Ilya Kovalchuk's shot and sprung Comeau down right wing. He broke into the right circle and eluded Brian Rolston, skated across the crease and deked Brodeur before sliding a backhander into the net for his 20th goal -- his first 20-goal season in the NHL.
John Tavares put the Isles ahead at 6:46 off a nifty deflection from the right edge of the left circle. Defenseman Andrew MacDonald ripped a shot from the left point that Matt Moulson and then Tavares tipped just enough to beat Brodeur to the short side for Tavares' 25th goal, one more than the No. 1 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft scored in his rookie season.
|Jacob Josefson (1) Backhand shot - ASST: David Clarkson (5), Anton Volchenkov (8)|
1 - 0 NJD
|SHG - Blake Comeau (20) Backhand shot - ASST: Jack Hillen (13)|
1 - 1 Tie
|John Tavares (25) Tip-in - ASST: Andrew MacDonald (23), Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau (29)|
2 - 1 NYI
|David Clarkson (10) Snap shot - ASST: Mattias Tedenby (8), Jacob Josefson (2)|
2 - 2 Tie
|Anssi Salmela (1) Snap shot - ASST: Mattias Tedenby (9), Patrik Elias (36)|
3 - 2 NJD
|Micheal Haley Fighting (maj) against Adam Mair|
|Adam Mair Fighting (maj) against Micheal Haley|
|Zenon Konopka Roughing against Patrik Elias|
|Travis Hamonic Holding against David Clarkson|
|Ilya Kovalchuk Tripping against Frans Nielsen|
|Jack Hillen Hooking against Nick Palmieri|
|Zenon Konopka Tripping against David Clarkson|
|Travis Hamonic Hooking against Nick Palmieri|
|Frans Nielsen Misconduct (10 min)|