NEWARK, N.J. -- The offensive floodgates finally opened for the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, as six players scored goals en route to a 6-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Prudential Center.
Following the triumph, several players congregated inside the team's training room to watch the conclusion of the game between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Knowing a Bruins' victory would have enabled the Devils to officially clinch a playoff berth, there was a lot of hooting and hollering. But it was all for naught -- despite blowing a 2-0 lead, the Caps won 3-2 in a shootout. That means New Jersey's next shot at officially clinching a playoff spot will be Saturday with either a win or overtime/shootout loss in Carolina. They could also clinch if the Capitals lose to the Montreal Canadiens.
"It would have been nice to clinch, but we're in a good spot," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "If we continue to do what we did tonight, we shouldn't worry."
The Devils, sixth in the Eastern Conference with 44 wins and 94 points, have four regular-season games remaining. Unlike last year at this time, when the Devils were in the process of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996, goaltender Martin Brodeur has yet to make any plans for the summer.
"I'm looking forward to getting back in the playoffs, no doubt about that," Brodeur said. "It was tough to go through what we went through last year. But we learned. We're not there yet, but looking forward to getting in there soon and then playing well when called upon."
New Jersey entered the game having scored only 11 goals in its previous eight contests, but took advantage of the NHL's weakest defensive team on a night when Brodeur allowed four goals on just 20 shots. Brodeur, who was making his fourth straight start, did get his 28th victory.
The loss overshadowed the fourth career hat trick by Lighting forward Ryan Malone. Trevor Smith added the other goal for the Lightning, scoring with nine seconds remaining in regulation.
With the Devils holding a precarious 4-3 edge after two periods, Alexei Ponikarovsky scored off a deflection in front at 2:25 before David Clarkson extended the lead to 6-3 by banging in a rebound from the slot at 6:05. The goal by Clarkson, his first in 10 games, forced Lightning coach Guy Boucher to replace starter Dwayne Roloson with Sebastien Caron. Roloson allowed six goals on 34 shots.
"We threw [the game] away," Boucher said. "We got what we deserved. There is a lack of urgency because of the ultimate goal, but that's something we have to manage. We have no right to change our game and be soft and get away from what makes us successful. In the last three games, our second period hasn't been good.
"What works is the simple stuff and we get into the fancy stuff. We stop shooting and try to stickhandle through guys, we turn the puck over and that costs us momentum, cost us goals and gives the other team all the momentum."
The six-goal outburst marked the biggest offensive night for the Devils since Feb. 4 -- a 6-4 triumph in Philadelphia. It also marked the ninth time this season that the Lightning, who entered the game last in the League with a 3.38 goals-against average, have allowed six or more goals in a game.
The teams combined for six goals during an offensive explosion in the second.
"In the second, we started to hold onto the puck in offensive zone and wear them down," DeBoer said. "We were a little impatient with puck [in the first]. We didn't hold onto the puck long enough and we weren't hard enough to play against. But in the second, we did a better job in the offensive zone."
Dainius Zubrus scored his first goal in 14 games when he broke in 2-on-1 with Patrik Elias while the Devils were shorthanded and redirected a puck past Roloson at 3:07 to pull the Devils into a 1-1 tie. It was New Jersey's League-leading 15th shorthanded goal and the third for Zubrus.
Elias, who had two assists in the game, thought the shorthanded goal sparked the bench.
"That got us going a little bit emotionally," he said. "I thought we came out in the first period flat, and nothing was happening … we couldn't get a forecheck going at all. They got a lead there, but that shorty got us going."
The Lightning regained the lead a little more than a minute later when Malone's shot from the right circle deflected off Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky and past Brodeur. Jacob Josefson's second goal of the season off a sweep in the right circle evened the score again at 6:54.
Malone then completed his three-goal night at 9:47 to give the Lightning a 3-2 edge. He battled for a loose puck in the slot and jammed home his 18th of the season with Brodeur sprawled out on his back.
"Everything [Malone] touched went in," Brodeur said. "He was Johnny-on-the-spot on his first two goals and made a good play on third. He's a big power forward, and we had a hard time getting him out in front of our net."
Ilya Kovalchuk pulled the Devils even again at 13:26 when he controlled a puck low in the right circle before blasting a shot past Roloson. The Devils took their first lead just 1:11 later when Zidlicky's blast from the top of the right circle beat Roloson to the long side.
Following the fourth goal by the Devils, Caron skated onto the ice and towards Roloson for what appeared to be a routine switch in net. After a few seconds where both goalies were occupying the crease, however, Caron then skated back to the bench and took his seat while Roloson remained in goal.
"From what I was told, there was a miscommunication on their bench," DeBoer said.
The Lightning opened a 1-0 lead with 44 seconds left in the first as Malone was in the right spot. Victor Hedman's initial blast from the point deflected off the leg of Steven Stamkos skating through the slot and onto the stick of Malone at the right post.
Devils captain Zach Parise was glad to see the team break out offensively.
"It was nice to get an explosion on offense," Parise said. "I thought we did a good job on the forecheck and created a lot of turnovers … and we finished.
"In the second, we did a better job of dumping the puck in and retrieving it," he continued. "We were getting it back and spending more time in the offensive zone."