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Devils feel rested, ready for stretch run

by Mike G. Morreale
While the big trade has yet to produce big results, the New Jersey Devils appear primed for a big finish to the regular season in an effort to re-assert themselves in the Eastern Conference.

Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't exactly set the world on fire since Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello acquired him Feb. 4, with 1 goal in six games. On top of that, the Devils went 7-11-2 in their final 20 games, enabling several clubs to gain precious ground while allowing the Washington Capitals to further extend their conference-leading point cushion.

And then there's the issue with running future Hall-of-Fame goalie Martin Brodeur into the ground -- he's 5-9-2 with a 2.93 goals-against average in his last 16 appearances. Brodeur, who made two starts for Canada at the Olympics and produced a 2.90 GAA and .867 save percentage, played 58 of the Devils' 61 games prior to the Olympic break.

The irony in his Olympic performance is Brodeur might return to New Jersey with added fervor and flare instead of weariness. His start against San Jose on Tuesday will be his first in nine days following his benching after Canada's 5-3 loss to the United States on Feb. 21.

Was the benching just what the doctor ordered for Brodeur down the stretch? It's possible.

In addition to having a focused Brodeur and Kovalchuk, who played for the Russia team eliminated by Canada in the Olympic quarterfinals last Wednesday, the Devils also will have feisty forward David Clarkson back in the mix.

Clarkson, who missed only one game in his two previous seasons, broke his right leg blocking a shot by Boston's Zdeno Chara on Nov. 27. He came back Dec. 28 against Atlanta and played two games before reinjuring his leg. Since then, he's missed 23 straight.

"David brings energy -- he's a guy that battles hard and always gets in there first," Devils forward Rob Niedermayer told "He sort of leads by example so getting him back is a big bonus."

Clarkson admits it's been a long road back. But now that he's returned, he's here to stay.

"It's been a long three months -- it's been tough mentally ... frustrating ... anger," he said. "But I think I've learned something from it. I think I've gotten stronger as a player. I have no more damage in the leg; it was just a broken bone, so at the end of the day there are no plates that will affect me down the road. But it's hard when stuff like that happens."

Clarkson isn't sure what role he'll play with Kovalchuk now in the fold, but he certainly won't change his aggressive style. In 25 games, Clarkson has 7 goals (3 on the power play), and 15 points. He's hoping his presence will help bolster the lineup.

"I think I'm close with a lot of guys in this room. I've been here four years now so I can add that little bit of spark and grittiness that I started the season off with," he said. "Hopefully, the opportunities are the same where I come in and get put in the same situations. But the lineup is deeper than when I left (with Kovalchuk), so I don't know where this team or the coach sees me fitting in, but hopefully it's in a spot.

"I feel great and I feel I can add a little fire to the team, finishing every check and getting in front of goalies and letting guys know there's a price to pay if you're going to hit one of our top guys. I'm not going to stop fighting -- not going to stop the way I play. Every team goes through a little drought and I think what you're seeing with us the last 16 games is all a part of it. You learn from those, it's just a little bit of adversity we hit this year and we'll deal with it. I think this (Olympic) break will help, big time."

At the time he was acquired, Kovalchuk's 31 goals scored were the most ever by a player acquired by New Jersey. Clarkson feels it's going to be special playing with a skater of his caliber.

"The way he skates, shifts his body and shoots the puck, it's pretty dynamic," Clarkson said. "No one wants to stand in front of (his shot) and I'll probably be the guy in front of the net on the power play when he shoots. I'll be like, 'Just don't hit me in the face.'

"But Kovy also has that little bit of grit that people don't realize -- like when he grabbed Sean Avery (Feb. 6). I don't think anyone saw that coming, but he's got that fire in him and I think that's a great thing to add to this locker room. When he gets going and gets comfortable, he'll go right back to being the player he was in Atlanta."
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