DETROIT -- If the New Jersey Devils are going to make a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they'll probably win a lot of games the way they did on Thursday night.
The Devils beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 at Joe Louis Arena for their fifth straight win and first victory here since Nov. 6, 1996 by playing suffocating defense and leaning on star goalie Martin Brodeur to make it stand up.
After weathering an early offensive onslaught in the first period and surviving a strong second by the Red Wings (48-28-5), the Devils (47-28-6) did what they do best in the third. They put the clamps on Detroit's high-powered offense to the tune of just four shots allowed and edged ahead on Petr Sykora's 20th goal -- which he scored at 11:20 off a pretty feed by Patrik Elias for the eventual game-winner.
"We haven't played really well against these guys, especially in this building since we beat them in the Stanley Cup (in 1995), so we were conscious about playing a good game," said Brodeur, who made 23 saves to pick up his 30th win. "These guys had a lot on the line. You could tell. They played really solid and gave us a good push, but we (weathered) the storm there in the second and were able to get a bounce to get the game-winner."
The loss combined with Nashville's victory against Dallas dropped Detroit (101 points) from fourth in the Western Conference to fifth behind the Predators (102 points). It also sets up a high-stakes game for playoff seeding here on Saturday afternoon against the Chicago Blackhawks (99 points, sixth place) -- who could tie Detroit in points with a regulation win and slip into the fifth spot based on tie-breakers.
Detroit could also wind up in fourth with a victory plus a Nashville loss to Colorado in regulation.
"Starting at home and also having that seventh one at home with this crowd, obviously that would be a big deal," said Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who put five shots on goal but was on the ice when Alexei Ponikarovsky gave the Devils a 1-0 lead midway through the first. "The main focus for us right now is we have to play for 60 minutes a night to win games. That would be our main focus."
They didn't do a poor job against New Jersey, but the effort still wasn't good enough to break through a wall of white and red the Devils threw out there in the final period.
"I didn't really like our second period," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said. "I thought the third period we did a good job. We clogged it up. We slowed them down and I thought we limited their scoring chances and capitalized on ours. And our goaltender was very good."
Detroit's goalie was also good, as Jimmy Howard took a tough-luck loss by making 19 saves while playing his second game in as many nights trying to prepare for the playoffs. He just wasn't good enough to steal a victory against a determined bunch of Devils, who are eagerly anticipating postseason play after missing out on it a year ago.
The Devils were locked into the sixth slot of the Eastern Conference before the game had ended thanks to Philadelphia beating Buffalo first, which ended New Jersey's slim chances of catching the Flyers for the fourth spot. The Devils don't seem to care, however.
"I'm not really scoreboard watching," DeBoer said. "Obviously, I'm interested in who we're going to end up playing, but we're trying to put as many points on the board and win as many games as we can and see who we get. I've got guys in that room (who) are used to being in the playoffs and they weren't last year. They're excited to be back and anxious to see who we're going to be playing and get started."
Count Brodeur among them.
This was just his second career regular-season victory in Joe Louis Arena and DeBoer said he circled this game as one he wanted to start. Brodeur wanted to get a tough road test in before the playoffs start, but it had to be special to leave here victorious after the Devils had lost nine straight in Detroit coming into this contest.
"I know he wanted this game," DeBoer said. "I can tell you that. That shows you his character. He wasn't ducking away from a tough game or a tough building. I think that speaks for what he's about."
The Devils' play in the latter half of the first and all of the third spoke for what they're about. And if they keep playing like this in the postseason, they're going to be a tough draw for whatever team they get -- which Detroit found out the hard way.
New Jersey took an early 1-0 lead on Ponikarovsky's 14th goal of the season midway through the first, which he scored by cleaning up a rebound of Peter Harrold's shot that was lying in the blue paint during a scramble.
It was a reward for overcoming an early offensive push by the Red Wings that nearly resulted in a goal by Pavel Datsyuk just 8:36 into the game. Datsyuk got the puck in the slot, pulled it past Sykora and fired a wrist shot that rang off the inside of the left post.
The puck bounced out to the left circle and that turned out to be the Wings' best scoring chance in the first 20 minutes. After Detroit jumped out to a 4-1 advantage in shots less than five minutes into the game, the Devils outshot the Wings 10-0 over the next 12:27 and ultmately took a 11-6 shots advantage into the second.
The Wings then made another good push to start the second and it paid off in Tomas Holmstrom's power-play goal at 6:13 to knot it 1-1 and cap a bevy of offensive chances. A little more than a minute earlier, the Wings swarmed the Devils net -- led by the third and fourth lines. They also drew a high-sticking infraction by Marek Zidlicky that led to Holmstrom's goal.
"In the second, maybe the Red Wings pushed us a little bit and we kind of stopped doing what we need to do to be successful," Brodeur said.
New Jersey, which had the League's top-ranked penalty killing units coming into the game, hadn't allowed a goal in 18 straight power plays faced. The Devils were also trying to tie the NHL record for least power-play goals allowed in a season in the modern era, which is 26 allowed by the 1973-74 Chicago Blackhawks.
Holmstrom's goal was the 27th the Devils have allowed, but they still have a shot to match the team record of only 28 yielded in 235 opportunities by the 1996-97 team.
Detroit continued to carry the play in the second, but couldn't crack Brodeur despite outshooting New Jersey 14-4 and getting its heralded puck-possession game rolling again. New Jersey, however, imposed its will in the third by limiting the Wings to just four shots and forging ahead on Sykora's goal just past the midway point.
The Devils only put six shots on goal in the third, but didn't really care as long as that one-goal lead held up, which it did.
"When you come in here, all you want to do is weather the storm the first seven or eight minutes, because you know they're going to jump on you (early)," Sykora said. "When you weather the storm, it lets you go back to your game and I thought we did."
The fact Detroit was playing its second game in as many nights, while New Jersey hadn't played since Tuesday, also crossed the Devils minds.
"They will always create and you have to kind of make them not create as much as they want to and kind of get them frustrated," Sykora said of the Wings, who've scored just nine goals in the past five games. "It was the second game for them on back-to-back nights and I felt if we weathered the first period we had a good chance ... and that's how it ended up."