NEWARK, N.J. - With Marty Brodeur back in the lineup and the Devils fielding a healthy team for the first time since the start of the season, New Jersey is looking like a serious Stanley Cup contender again.
Zach Parise had two goals and an assist and the Devils made life easy for Brodeur in his second game back from elbow surgery, routing the Florida Panthers 7-2 on Saturday afternoon.
"We played well," Parise said after scoring his 37th and 38th goals of the season. "We're not giving them great scoring chances, not giving them the second and third rebounds. It just feels like everything is coming together at this time of the season."
The win was the second straight with Brodeur back after missing 50 games, and New Jersey has outscored its opponents 11-2 in that span.
"That's how you want to be successful, going into the playoffs with good habits defensively," Brodeur said after a 15-save effort. "It shows.
"If you play well defensively you can still score four goals and seven goals. Our coach wants us to play well defensively in our own zone because that will make us better offensively."
The win was the seventh in nine games for New Jersey, which opened a seven-point lead over second-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division with 20 games left in the regular season. The Flyers, who are here Sunday, have played two fewer games.
"We went through that rash of injuries early on," Brodeur said alluding to injuries that also sidelined free agent pickups Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik and defenceman Andy Greene. "With me back now, it's the countdown to the playoffs."
Brodeur, who shut out Colorado 4-0 on Thursday, said he felt good in winning his 546th career game and moving to within five of tying Patrick Roy's NHL record.
The four-time Vezina Trophy winner as hockey's best goalie extended his shutout streak to almost five periods before Ville Peltonen scored late in the second period.
However, the Devils had a 5-0 lead then in a game in which they peppered Panthers goaltender Craig Anderson with 46 shots.
"We're a team that has to work for everything we get," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said. "When we're off a little bit, we get beat, especially when we are playing against very good teams."
Brendan Shanahan, Travis Zajac, Rolston, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus also scored for the Devils, who got a little payback for a 4-0 loss in Florida on Feb. 17.
"I think we have a great hockey team in here and everybody is finding their role," Rolston said. "Obviously, Marty being back gives us that much more confidence.
"This was a great win against a good hockey team. Everyone is pulling on the rope and it's just nice now."
While Brodeur got another standing ovation to start the game, Parise had the crowd shouting "M-V-P!, M-V-P!" by the end of the opening period. His goal total is second in the league to Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
Parise got his first at 1:18, taking an excellent cross-ice pass from Jamie Langenbrunner for a 1-on-1 against Anderson. The goaltender stopped the initial shot but Parise tapped his own rebound between his pads.
Parise got his second after a giveaway by Florida's Nathan Horton near his own blue-line. Parise collected the puck, blew past defenceman Keith Ballard and beat Anderson with a shot to the top corner.
"Andy (Anderson) played well," Ballard said. "If it weren't for him, they would have had about fifteen."
New Jersey broke the game open with a four-goal second period in which Rolston and Zajac scored 24 seconds apart.
Shanahan stretched the lead to 3-0 early in the second on a rebound after Anderson stopped a breakaway by Clarkson.
Zajac got his 18th of the season by tapping Parise's no-look pass into an empty net with the Devils on a power play. Rolston almost immediately pushed the lead to 5-0 when he put a rebound into an open net after Brian Gionta was stopped on a breakaway.
Peltonen kept Brodeur from his 100th career regular-season shutout with a shot from the right circle that found the upper corner of the net.
Clarkson scored in close late in the second period and Zubrus got one late in the third period. Bryan McCabe also tallied for Florida in the third.
Notes: Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun missed his third straight game with an inner ear problem. ... Florida sent defenceman Nick Boynton home for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. ... Panthers left-winger Cory Stillman missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. ... Left-winger Mike Rupp and defenceman Jay Leach were the Devils' healthy scratches.