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Devils closing in on Sabres

NHL.com @NHL

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Unlike a year ago, the New Jersey Devils aren't waiting until the end of the season to make a playoff run.

They're rolling right now, with wins in 15 of 20 games, and points in all but two.

With two months left in the regular season, the Devils lead the Atlantic Division by nine points over second-place Pittsburgh, and they have pulled within four points of Buffalo in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, having played one less game than the Sabres.

"It's been a great couple of weeks and a great couple of months we are having as far as being consistent," said goaltender Martin Brodeur, who leads the NHL with 34 wins, 10 shutouts and a 2.04 goals-against average.

"We just worry about us and what we do...In my 13 years here, this team is close, and we have a lot of fun," the 34-year-old added.

It's a far cry from the rollercoaster 2005-06 season. An exhausted Larry Robinson resigned as coach in December and had to be replaced behind the bench by general manager Lou Lamoriello. New Jersey didn't get going until February, and they needed to close the regular season with 11 straight wins to capture the division title.

After sweeping the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, New Jersey was eliminated in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes, the eventual Stanley Cup winner.

"It was a learning experience, and the best part was it gave us a lot of confidence coming into this season with the same group of guys," center Scott Gomez said.

The one change made was behind the bench. Lamoriello went back to the front office and hired former Canadiens coach Claude Julien to run the team.

The new coach and the team needed about a dozen games to get used to each other, but they are now on the same page. In the new wide-open NHL, New Jersey has gone back to old Devils' hockey. They clog up the middle of the ice. They protect Brodeur, and, when an opponent penetrates the defense, Brodeur is there to stop them.

It's boring low-scoring hockey, but it works. New Jersey has played 31 games decided by a goal, and it has won 21 and gotten points in six other games.

"When you come into this building you know the type of game you are going to have," Islanders forward Mike Sillinger said after Brodeur posted his 90th career shutout on Thursday night with a 2-0 win. "As far as frustrating, I don't think it's frustrating at all. It's what you expect."

What's interesting about the Devils is the way they accept their roles. Gomez, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta are the skilled top line, but the No. 2 group of Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner have combined for 50 goals. John Madden, Jay Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin make up one of the finest checking lines in the league.

While the defense no longer has either Scott Stevens (retirement) or Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim), All-Star Brian Rafalski anchors a group that has surrendered a league-low 129 goals.

"We have a good feeling but we don't want to have any letdowns," Pandolfo said. "We want to keep peaking and get everything squared for the playoffs. You don't want to peak too early. You want to keep building. It's nice to keep gaining points so you don't have to kill yourself towards the end of the year."

Last year also has made the Devils wary. If they could make a late run, they know someone can do it this year.

Pittsburgh might be that team. The Penguins and young sensation Sidney Crosby, the league's leading scorer, have won 10 of 12 with two overtime losses.

"Our focus is: 'No letup."' Langenbrunner said. "We've got to keep getting wins to end up where we want to be - a top three spot. That's our focus."

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