NEWARK, N.J. - With a month left in the regular season, the New Jersey Devils are somewhat of a question mark.
There is little doubt Jacques Lemaire's team is going to the post-season for the 13th consecutive season. The head scratcher is which team is going to show up. Will it be the one that had the best record in the Eastern Conference from mid-December to mid-January or the one that has slipped over the past month and now trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points in the Atlantic Division heading into a showdown Friday night?
New Jersey has a game in hand on the Penguins, and one other thing going for it. It played its best game in a long time on Wednesday night, defeating the New York Rangers 6-3 for its fourth win in 12 games (4-7-1).
"I think it is a step in the right direction," defenceman Mike Mottau said. "We had a little team meeting and addressed some of the problems we had in the last month and aired it out a bit. We put together a good effort against the Rangers and it showed how we have to play each night to be successful."
The team meeting Tuesday helped put things in focus, especially after a dismal effort in a 2-0 loss to the last-placed Edmonton Oilers in the final game of three-game post-Olympic road trip.
Players looked each other in the eye and said what was on their minds. In essence, they pressured each other.
"It sort of woke everyone up," centre Travis Zajac said. "We decided as a team we don't have many games left to work on some things before the playoffs.
"We want to be peaking at the right time going into the playoffs and if we want to do that, we have to start to win some hockey games and play good."
Not only did the Devils play well on Wednesday in knocking off their arch rivals, they played with passion, something that has been missing for a long time.
"We made some mistakes but our intensity level was so much better and that's what we have been talking about the last couple of days, getting that level back up where it needs to be and the rest will take care of itself," said captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored the winning goal against the Rangers. "We did a good job of that tonight and now we have to continue that."
The game against the Rangers wasn't perfect. Three times the Devils took leads, and three times the Rangers tied the game, with their first and third goals coming roughly within a minute of a New Jersey goal.
"Even when they tied it up 3-3, nobody panicked, it was positive," said Patrik Elias, who was moved to centre on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Langenbrunner. "We just kept going at them and got a couple of big goals and stayed with it. We have to stay with it."
The schedule is not going to be easy. After the Penguins game, the Devils will travel to Long Island to meet the Islanders on Saturday and then return home next week with games against Boston and Pittsburgh again.
"I think we have to play like this a couple of times," said American Olympian Zach Parise, who scored his 31st goal Wednesday. "We have to do it again the next game and the game after that.
"One game is not going to turn things around. You have to start somewhere and I think tonight was a good start for us."
"The guys were focused," Lemaire said. "It was one of the few games we played three periods.
"We still did some mistakes here and there, but we played hard for three periods."