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Devils continue playoff push against Isles

by John Kreiser
DEVILS (29-31-4) at ISLANDERS (25-32-9)


Last 10
-- New Jersey 9-1-0; New York 5-3-2

Season series -- This is Game 4 of six between the New York-area rivals. The Islanders won the first two, 2-0 at home on Nov. 26 and 5-1 at Newark on Dec. 23. The Devils rebounded with a 5-2 win at the Nassau Coliseum in their last visit on Jan. 17.

Big story -- The Devils have made up two-thirds of the 27-gap between them and eighth place that they faced at the midpoint of the season. They are 19-2-2 in the second half of the season after a horrible 10-29-2 first half. Their final visit to Long Island is the first of six consecutive games in which New Jersey plays non-playoff teams in the East. But the Islanders have enjoyed a successful second half of their own, including a 5-2 win against St. Louis at home on Saturday,

Team Scope:

-- The Devils are winning because they're playing the kind of hockey coach Jacques Lemaire preaches. They give up few scoring chances and get just enough goals to win. Friday's 2-1 overtime victory against Pittsburgh was a perfect example: The Devils made the most of their lone power play when Ilya Kovalchuk scored a power-play goal in the final seconds of overtime.

They bear no resemblance to the team that reached the midway point in the NHL cellar.

"We’ve definitely changed a lot of things in our zone,” said goaltender Martin Brodeur, who stopped 25 shots and will play against the Isles. “I think the support of players, the support of having guys closer together and supporting each other so when there’s breakdowns, there’s people closer to jump on loose pucks and be able to get in shooting lanes and blocking shots. It makes a big difference in the way that Jacques  really changed the way the positioning is in our zone."

Islanders -- The Isles have undergone their own renaissance since mid-December, though not to the extent of the Devils. Still, after losing 20 of 21 games (the only win came against New Jersey), the Islanders have looked like an entirely different team -- young, fast and hard-working. Though they managed only 22 shots against the Blues, they had plenty of scoring chances, including numerous odd-man rushes.

But playing the struggling Blues is one thing. They know the Devils will present a much tougher test.

"We just want to keep what we've got going," center John Tavares said. "Tomorrow is a huge game for us, with the roll that team's been on."

Who's hot -- Kovalchuk has been the driving force of the Devils' offense during their surge. He has 13 goals in his last 23 games, and Friday's OT goal was his ninth game-winner, tying him with fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin of Washington for the League lead. ... Isles center Frans Nielsen has 4 assists in his last two games. Defenseman

Injury report-- New Jersey could get some help in a couple of weeks. Star forward Zach Parise, out since undergoing knee surgery in early November, is skating again. ... The Islanders are without a bevy of regulars; including two of their most experienced defensemen, Radek Martinek (lower body) and Milan Jurcina (groin).

Stat pack -- Kovalchuk has the winning goal in six of the Devils' last 12 games. ... Tavares has matched his rookie-season output with 24 goals and his 55 points are one more than he had all last season. ...

Puck drop -- The last time the Devils came to the Coliseum, they were just beginning their surge and trying not to talk too much about a possible playoff berth. They're still trying to soft-pedal playoff talk -- even while they continue to be amazed at Kovalchuk's performance.

"We understand that Kovy’s scoring some huge goals for us and we’re happy for him and not surprised by it, really," center Brian Rolston said after Friday's win. "Our run is something special, there’s no question about that. But we don’t think about it too much. You move on to the next game. What Kovy’s doing is fantastic and we’re happy for him."
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