Three points are all that separate the Devils from a return to the playoffs. But with five games remaining, the club is looking to tighten up its game in time for the NHL's second season.
A win Thursday against Tampa Bay combined with a Washington loss in Boston would put New Jersey (43-28-6) back in the postseason for the 14th time in 15 seasons.
Last year's miss snapped a streak of 13 straight playoff appearances, marking only the third time since 1987-88 that the Devils were shut out of postseason play.
"I think it's significant in that, that was Step One of the steps we set out to take this year as a team," coach Peter DeBoer said Wednesday. "I don't think any of the players would know that we can clinch a playoff spot with a win tomorrow. I think we're worried about playing well, winning games, and getting in the playoffs in a good spot. I think that's our focus right now."
Tuesday's 2-1 shootout victory over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks halted a two-game slide. Martin Brodeur
made 37 saves and Travis Zajac
tallied in the shootout's fifth round to send New Jersey to its third win in eight outings (3-4-1).
Now the sooner the Devils nail down a spot, the better.
"It hasn't been talked about, but I think people realize the quicker you get in, the quicker you focus on different things," Brodeur said. "Right now, we're battling to get wins to get ourselves more on a positive side about how we feel. But again, we need to work on some of the things we need to do on our game. Sometimes, when you need to get wins you play differently than when it's all going to be said and done. The quicker we can get that done, the nicer it'll be to get ourselves ready for it.
"We say now we can't lose focus on what we need to do on the ice every day. Everybody realizes we need to be better than we've been the last few weeks."
DeBoer kept his squad off the ice on Wednesday. Anton Volchenkov
(lower body, two games missed) skated on his own before what had been scheduled to be an 11:30 practice.
"I don't think you can have too much rest, mental or physical, this time of year," DeBoer said. "It's a marathon, the season. The playoffs are a whole other race. That's the mindset we've taken. When I look at our play over the month, I think there's no doubt we've lost a little bit of our edge here the last 10 to 14 days. We've got to find a way to get it back in the last week."
Beating the Blackhawks snapped a personal four-game winless skid for Brodeur, who said the Devils may have fallen into a comfort zone after strengthening their hold on sixth place in the conference.
"Some teams get these dog days at different times of the year," Brodeur explained. "Just because maybe we had a little room [between other teams in the standings], we were kind of in no man's land for awhile. Maybe we kind of changed the attitude about what we needed to do. But it comes at a time now, there's five games left – there's not much time to get ourselves [going]. It's not just going to turn on automatically. I'm not saying we need to win all the games, but we just have to feel good about what we do and be able to execute some of the stuff that the coaches want us to do.
"We went through a stretch for about 10 games that it just came second nature to us: offensively, defensively, system-wise. We dropped down, so we have to find it again."
Brodeur will start Thursday hoping to string together some Ws before the end of the regular season.
"Winning is what makes you feel good as a goalie," he said. "It doesn't matter if you play well. If you don't get the wins, it's just not a good feeling. Getting that win, even though it was a shootout, it boosts a little bit your confidence. You just have to keep plugging away and playing well."
• Adam Larsson
was a healthy scratch for the first time this season on Tuesday, but DeBoer said he didn't rule out putting the rookie defenseman back in the lineup Thursday.
"I think we're all comfortable that we can stick him back in the lineup and we're going to get a positive response," the coach said. "Right now, he's just got to wait for his opportunity. That might be next game, that might be a week from now. The bigger picture here is, you're at a time of the year right now where the individual attention and the individual teaching really takes a backseat to where the team's at, and getting the team in the right place for the playoffs."