MONTREAL -- After three seasons of missing the playoffs as head coach of the Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils bench boss Peter DeBoer is likely sincere when he says his club's incredible run since the All-Star break has not necessarily allowed him to sleep much better at night.
"I'm never comfortable this time of year. You're a bad weekend away from being in a dogfight for eighth," DeBoer said Sunday morning. "You're never comfortable until you're in."
In that case, the Devils opponents Sunday evening are not the least bit comfortable, seeing as the Montreal Canadiens sit six points out of the final playoff spot, with four teams to leapfrog in order to get there.
The Habs have put together a 5-1-1 stretch to remain on the periphery of the playoff hunt, and DeBoer is cognizant of the effect the trade of defenseman Hal Gill to the Nashville Predators on Friday can have on a team's attitude.
"We're going to see a desperate team," DeBoer said. "I think they've been playing well, I've watched the last few games on tape. They always give us a hard time, they have a lot of speed, a lot of skill. You never know how a team's going to react once you begin making trades or selling off guys. I've been on that end of that, and a lot of times you get a positive reaction because other guys are getting an opportunity. So we have to be prepared for that."
The Devils have been on a tremendous run since the All-Star break with a 7-1-1 record, and DeBoer gives all the credit for that to his leadership group of goaltender Martin Brodeur and forwards Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias.
Brodeur has a 6-0-1 record with a .936 save percentage and 1.82 goals against average since the break, while Kovalchuk has 17 points, Parise has 10 points and Elias has 8 points in those nine games.
"We came out of the All-Star break and realized as a group that we had to find another level. It started with our best players. Marty Brodeur's come back and been outstanding, Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias, all those guys have found another level that we knew they had. It's translated into wins," DeBoer said. "Those guys realized that we needed a push here in order to get in. We went into the All-Star break sitting tied for eighth with a tough stretch of games coming out of it. We knew that the rubber was kind of hitting the road, so to speak, and we needed to find another level. Those guys have done that."
The Devils have done this largely without rookie defenseman Adam Larsson, who has been out with a bruised back since taking a big hit from Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and slamming hard into the boards in New Jersey on Feb. 2. In addition to that, Henrik Tallinder has been out since Jan. 17 with a leg injury, and it appears another defenseman will also be missing Sunday as Kurtis Foster will likely be replaced by minor league call-up Peter Harrold.
In light of this, DeBoer says Brodeur's play of late has been more vital than ever.
"We need him to be our best player on a lot of nights, especially with some of the injuries on defense we've been dealing with," he said. "He's been great."
Brodeur will be playing his final game of the season in his hometown, where he has a career record of 18-8-1 with a 1.55 GAA, .944 save percentage and five shutouts.
Carey Price will get the start in goal for the Canadiens, who did not skate Sunday morning.
Here are the expected lineups for Sunday night's game.
Zach Parise – Adam Henrique – Ilya Kovalchuk
Petr Sykora – Patrik Elias – David Clarkson
Alexei Ponikarovsky – Dainius Zubrus – Steve Bernier
Eric Boulton – Jacob Josefson – Nick Palmieri
Andy Greene – Mark Fayne
Bryce Salvador – Anton Volchenkov
Matt Taormina – Peter Harrold
Max Pacioretty – David Desharnais – Erik Cole
Mathieu Darche – Tomas Plekanec – Rene Bourque
Ryan White – Scott Gomez – Andrei Kostitsyn
Louis Leblanc – Lars Eller
Josh Gorges – P.K. Subban
Alexei Emelin – Raphael Diaz
Tomas Kaberle – Chris Campoli