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Power play key in division quest

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Kovalchuk will be looking to score Saturday vs. the Blues.
Sitting just one point out of first place in the Atlantic Division, the Devils have plenty to play for over the final dozen games of the regular season.

Their 13th consecutive playoff berth is all but secure, but the division crown would guarantee the Devils (42-24-4) a top-three seeding in the Eastern Conference. They finished seven points up on Pittsburgh last season to take their eighth division title.

“With playoff positioning, it’s pretty rare that you’re going to get yourself locked in with 10 or 12 games to go,” Martin Brodeur said. “It’s a matter of keeping yourself accountable. It definitely helps when you do have goals to reach. I think that helps everybody to play a certain way. You want to come into the playoffs playing as well as you can. We’ve done it both ways. We’ve done it streaking like crazy, we’ve done it crawling. I don’t know what the recipe is (for success), or if there is one.”

Brodeur added that when the playoffs begin, “You shut your eyes, open them up, and you start again – that’s really what it is. Definitely for now it makes us accountable to ourselves, and that’s good.”

Jacques Lemaire’s view is that this late in regular season, a team has to be at its best whether or not a division is on the line.

“When there’s 10 to 15 games left, I don’t know if you need a title or some sort of motivation to get you ready to play,” Lemaire explained. “I’m not sure of that.”

But does the Atlantic chase inject some added incentive for the final 12 games?

“If you want, it can,” the coach said. “But I don’t see it. Just to play good, get prepared for the playoffs, play the best you can, feel good about what you’re doing – that should be enough. I know that if you’re close to making (the playoffs), you think about that. It’s something that’s going to push you, maybe. But I thought the job was to be at your best, to play at your best. I don’t think it says that you should be at your best only when there’s something on the line. An athlete plays a sport, he’s got to be at his best every time he plays.”

One of the things the Devils hope to sort out down the homestretch is their power play. They went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s 2-1 shootout loss in Toronto and have not converted with the man advantage over their last five games. They want to regain the form that produced five power-play goals in six games from Feb. 12 to March 10 (5-for-19).

Heading into Friday's action, the Devils’ power play was ranked 17th, overall (17.9%).

“Very bad,” Ilya Kovalchuk said. “I think that’s why we lost the game (in Toronto). We can make our lives easier if we score some goals on the power play. It’s a really important part of the game. Especially with our skill level, the guys that play on our power play it’s high. We just have to be on the same page and know what we’re doing and shoot the puck more.”

But Kovalchuk, who has five goals and seven assists in 15 games with New Jersey, said Friday’s practice was a step in the right direction.

“On our breakout, we figured out what we’re doing,” he said. “We tried to shoot the puck more. Paul’s back, he’s very confident and patient with the puck. Now we’ve got two units, and on the power play, that’s good.”

Brian Rolston’s booming shot is an asset that can create more offense on special teams. Rolston, who was scratched in Toronto, sees power-play time at the point, as do Kovalchuk and Jamie Langenbrunner.

“I feel that he can play better,” Lemaire said of Rolston, who has scored three of his 18 goals with the man advantage. “I feel he was trying at a time, really hard. He had a little injury that maybe slowed him down. But, he’s got to keep going because we need him.”

Lemaire expected to have Rolston back in the lineup Saturday when the Devils host St. Louis. Five points out of the final playoff spot in the West, the Blues ended a two-game skid with a 4-3 win at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.

Jersey’s Team will have to be sharp to extend their home winning streak to six games. Though only five games over .500 for the season, St. Louis has been strong on the road, where they have gone 21-11-4.

Lemaire had his club working on the man advantage at Friday’s practice. All players were on the ice except Patrik Elias, who rested.
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