|Andy Greene and the Devils hope to keep Steven Stamkos in check. He has three goals and an assist in three appearances vs. Jersey's Team.
Jacques Lemaire's Devils are 3-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, though all three wins have been by one goal.
New Jersey took a pair of shootout victories in Tampa – 4-3 on Oct. 8 and 2-1 on Oct. 31 – and followed them up with a 3-2 triumph on Dec. 4, when Jamie Langenbrunner broke a 2-2 tie with 38.1 seconds left in regulation.
The head coach expects more of the same on Friday night, when New Jersey hosts the Bolts to close out the season series.
"Exactly the same type of game – a skating game," he said Friday morning. "A team that will make bad mistakes will pay for it."
Nineteen points separate the Lightning (16-16-10) from the Devils (30-10-1), who lead the Eastern Conference with 61. Despite that gap, Lemaire hasn't looked past his offensively-talented opponent.
They're led by Martin St. Louis' 46 points (10g-36a), and sophomore standout Steven Stamkos' 21 goals. Even in an off-year, the always dangerous Vinny Lecavalier has averaged nearly a point a game (10g-29a in 42 games).
"I feel that they skate as well as we do," Lemaire explained. "They’re getting their chances, we’re getting our chances. It’s a tight game; good intensity. All three games were very similar. I don’t think we had a lot of success, either part, on the power play, except maybe them in the first game. Besides that, it’s been pretty even games."
Friday's contest marks game No. 42 for the Devils, officially opening the back half of the regular season marathon. Lemaire had guided his club to the best first-half start in franchise history, and feels they can continue to improve heading into February's two-week Olympic break.
He admitted that even on those nights when the Devils bring less than their best, they have still managed to come out on top.
"I don’t know if we’ve been playing at our best all the time, but we’re finding a way to win," he said. "Some nights, I know I’m disappointed with the way we play, and we still manage to win. Other nights, we’re just pleased and excited to see them go; how well they’re playing."
Every coach works toward getting consistent performances from his players. The demand to succeed is a constant, but requires the right balance of rest and practice.
"It’s hard because of what we’re demanding from the player," he said. "It’s every practice. Just look at this morning: you want the guys to skate, so they’re skating as hard as they can, and it’s a morning skate. They won’t do it for long, it’s fine. But you’re still demanding. And in practices, you demand the same thing. And in games, you know how many games we’re playing a week. There’s a lot of three in four nights, so as I’m saying, we demand a lot. It’s hard to get the guys to play their best every night."Travis Zajac
broke a 12-game goal drought in Tuesday's win over Dallas, and Lemaire was asked how he can tell when a player has regained his swagger. The coach brought up the recent play of Langenbrunner, who has scored five goals and three assists during his current five-game points streak.
"Look at him," Lemaire said. "It looks like he’s got wings. And he’s not the fastest skater in the League, but it looks like he’s got wings. Why? Because things are going well for him. He’s skating well and he’s just flying. That’s how it goes. When you’re not scoring, then you have a semi to pull every shift you’re on the ice."
The ZZ Pops line of Langenbrunner, Zajac and Zach Parise
produced two goals and three assists against the Stars, but Lemaire was noncommittal about permanently keeping them together.
"Travis and Zach, I’ve got about 18 guys that want to play with them; that loves to play with them," he said. "Probably Marty, too. And Scott Stevens."
Lemaire said he will go with the same lineup from the Dallas game, when Ilkka Pikkarainen and Andrew Peters were scratched.