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Devils have sights set high in chase for playoff positioning

New Jersey aiming to pass Flyers, Blue Jackets, Penguins, claim second place in Metropolitan Division

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils are looking up at an opportunity in the Eastern Conference.

"You can't be content trying to hold down the teams below you," Devils forward Blake Coleman said. "You've got to be dogs and you've got to be hunting the teams ahead of you."

Though one the most intriguing races to follow during the stretch run of the NHL regular season has been between New Jersey and the Florida Panthers for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, the Devils' focus is on a different perspective of the playoff race.

New Jersey, which has been fending off the Panthers for the second wild card since March 15, has a three-point lead on Florida with 89 points through 77 games. The Panthers, who have been between one and three points behind the Devils since March 20, have a game in hand.

However, the Devils are also three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the first wild card position with a game in hand; they are four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and five points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for second, and New Jersey has a game in hand on each of them, too.

The Devils trail the first-place Washington Capitals by 10 points with five games to play.

Video: PIT@NJD: Coleman lifts backhander over Murray

"Who knows, maybe we can slip ahead of Philly or Columbus," forward Taylor Hall said. "You just never know. The last thing you want to do is rely on teams to lose for you; you want to do your own work."

The Devils are 6-2-1 in their past nine games, starting with a 3-2 shootout win at the Nashville Predators on March 10. They have points in four straight (3-0-1) heading into their game against the New York Islanders at Prudential Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, MSG+ 2, NHL.TV).

They are doing their own work well.

"We're proud of our game," Hall said. "It's not perfect, but at this time of year it rarely is a perfect 60-minute effort. There are going to be lots of surges and pushes from the other team. For the most part, our game is there and our battle level has been consistent throughout."

Hall couldn't heap too much praise on the Devils, because he he was speaking minutes after his turnover in overtime led to Sidney Crosby's winning goal in a 4-3 loss against the Penguins at Prudential Center on Thursday. 

It stung because the Devils had a 3-2 lead until Patric Hornqvist scored with 8:34 remaining in regulation. They were that close to moving to two points behind the Penguins for what would have been third place in the division.

But they didn't seem at all rattled or discontent; on the contrary, the Devils were excited about how they played against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions - who they are 3-0-1 against this season - and what it means in their big picture.

"This is where we grow," coach John Hynes said.

Video: PIT@NJD: Hall rings wrister off post and in for PPG

Hynes said there were teaching moments for the Devils in the loss, including making sure they're harder on the puck late in games, that they get it through the neutral zone and over the red line to force Pittsburgh to retreat into its own zone to get it back.

He brings up those points because as much as the Devils are in the playoff race, they're also learning how to play in a playoff race. 

Defenseman Andy Greene, the captain, and center Travis Zajac are the only two Devils who have been to the playoffs with New Jersey. That was six years ago, when the Devils went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost in six games against the Los Angeles Kings.

They haven't made the playoffs since. They haven't come close in the past three seasons, finishing 25 points out last season, 12 points out two seasons ago and 20 points out three seasons ago.

"For us as a team, as players, as an organization, this is what we want," Hynes said. "You have to be able to play your best in these situations and you have understand how to manage yourself. This is the growth we want, situations of understanding control what you can control, focus on our own team, focus on the task and understand how hard and how competitive the games are."

For those reasons, Hynes said he's not getting caught up in the stress of scoreboard and standings watching, even though he said he did watch the game between the Panthers' 4-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday. 

"You can only focus your energy on so many things, so scoreboard watching, it really does no good," Hynes said. "You can sit in front of your TV and you can watch and be stressed out, but it is what it is. For us, it's about making sure that we're using our energy in the right way. We understand you have to win to get in. So, how do we do that? It's not by scoreboard watching." 

Instead, it's about making the most of opportunities.

The Devils, staring up the standings, see a big one. The chase is on.

"We have that mindset," Coleman said. "You can't be scared of what is coming beneath you. You've got to keep pushing and chasing and if you keep climbing the ladder, it really doesn't matter what the teams beneath you are doing."

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