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Lemaire upbeat heading into weekend finale

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Patrik Elias
Bad bounces and unlucky breaks are the challenges that every contender faces down the stretch. That's why head coach Jacques Lemaire isn't concerned about Thursday's 3-2 loss in Florida.

His Devils control their own destiny atop the Atlantic Division. Currently tied for first with Pittsburgh, they can clinch their second straight division title – and ninth in 13 seasons – with wins against the Islanders and Buffalo in the final weekend of the regular season.

They missed an opportunity in Florida to move closer to that goal, despite outshooting the Panthers, 44-18. Scott Clemmensen, the ex-Devil goaltender, was the difference in the contest, making 42 saves for his second win of the season against his former team.

"Some nights, you don’t play as good; you won’t win," Lemaire said after Friday's practice. "Other nights, you’re going to hit a good goalie, you won’t win. Other nights, you won’t have the breaks – they’ll have the breaks – and you won’t win. We got close to 20 chances against [Florida] last night, they didn’t get a lot of chances, and they beat us. So you’re saying we’re not playing well, what’s the problem, what’s this, what’s that? We just couldn’t score enough goals against a good goalie that night. There’s nothing else."

The Devils (46-27-7, 99pts) captured two of three on their southern road trip, including back-to-back shutout wins at Carolina and Atlanta. They enter the weekend with the same record as the Penguins, who close out their schedule at Atlanta and Long Island on Saturday and Sunday.

Should New Jersey and Pittsburgh finish with identical marks, the Devils hold the second tiebreaker, which is head-to-head record. They finished 6-0 against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“We want to be playing well come playoff time, and that would mean winning the last two games and winning the division,” Mike Mottau said. “That was one of our goals at the start of the year, to finish as high as possible, and that would mean winning the Atlantic in this case. As far as we’re concerned in here, we’re looking for results now and for a good feeling going into the playoffs.”

The Devils dominated the Panthers, especially in the third period, when they outshot them 22-5. They feel similiar efforts this weekend will have them in peak form when the playoffs begin next week. New Jersey could finish as high as second in the Eastern Conference or as low as fourth, and open against any team from a pool of Ottawa, Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia, or the Rangers.

“I think it’s important to play the way we’ve been playing,” said Patrik Elias, who scored in Florida for his fourth point in four games. “Even though we lost [Thursday night], we had a lot of opportunities, a lot of good chances, we just didn’t bury them. We made a couple of mistakes that cost us. We just have to play good hockey, though.”

The Islanders would relish the role of spoiler and have taken two of their last three meetings with New Jersey.

“They’re young and they’re playing really loose right now,” Mottau said. “Guys are playing for jobs for next year and they want to finish this season on a good note. They’re going to come in and play how they usually play us – they play us tough.”

Lemaire is working on getting his players rested for a postseason run. Martin Brodeur, Zach Parise, and Colin White were given the day off on Friday. Saturday's morning skate will be an optional. 

The challenge is to rest key players without compromising the team's performance in the final two games.

"This is the question that we’re asking ourselves," he said. "We know we want to finish as high as possible. That’s the one thing. The other thing is we want to make sure the players are rested for the playoffs. We have a huge decision to make."

Even with home ice advantage clinched for the first round, the Devils feel there's more work to be done.

"You want to finish as high as possible," Lemaire said, pointing to the division title banners in the practice rink. "Would you have another one like this?"

Travis Zajac played two seasons at the University of North Dakota, and was disappointed to hear that the team will be changing its "Fighting Sioux" nickname. The Associated Press reported Friday that a state Supreme Court ruling and Board of Higher Education decision have retired the name for good. The school will stop using the name in August.

"It kind of [stinks] because it’s a great name, it’s been the school’s name for a while," Zajac said. "I felt proud wearing the Fighting Sioux jersey and carrying that tradition. There’s a lot of tradition behind the hockey team and the school. I guess for that to be done it kind of [stinks]."

Zach Parise is also an alumnus of UND, which has seven national titles in men's ice hockey, and 14 WCHA championships. They have used the Fighting Sioux nickname since 1930.
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