The Devils come to the Bell Centre on Sunday as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Having won seven and gotten a regulation tie in their last nine games — 15 of a possible 18 points — sixth place New Jersey with 70 points has put some daylight between themselves and the teams battling for the eighth playoff spot. They are six points up on the Maple Leafs, who in turn are six points up on the Habs, who are tied with Tampa Bay and the Islanders in points with 58.
What’s been the Devils formula? It starts up front where the top line of Zach Parise, rookie Adam Henrique, and Ilya Kovalchuk are burning up the league. The chemistry between Kovalchuk and Parise is impressive: Kovalchuk has 27 points in the last 18 games, Parise has 11 points in the last 10. Henrique — who missed five of the last 14 games with a groin injury — has found his stride again and has four points in his last four games and is firmly in the discussion for the Calder Trophy.
In Henrique’s absence, Patrick Elias filled in on the top line, creating a world-class trio with Parise and Kovalcuk. Elias is usually good for at least a point per game and even after Henrique returned, Elias and Kovalchuk still showed some magic in this game 10 days ago during a line change against the Blues and Jaroslav Halak.
With Henrique healthy, Elias is back centering a strong second line with Petr Sykora, and a resurgent David Clarkson, who has hit the 20 goal mark for the first time in his career after two down seasons marked by injury and inconsistency. At his best, Clarkson is the Devils version of Flyer Scott Hartnell.
Jersey’s strength up front doesn’t stop there. GM Lou Lamoriello’s pickup of Alexei Ponikarovsky in January has paid off handsomely. The big former Leaf winger, who has bounced around the last few seasons, tallied nine points in his 11 games as a Devil and could be making a case to sign a new deal with Jersey. He’s most recently been teamed with Dainius Zubrus and right wing Steve Bernier.
And — this should come as little surprise — Marty Brodeur has been the backbone of the Devils recent form. Finding his game again after playing poorly last year and battling through some bad games this year, the man Mike Boone calls “Martin F.” has won six of his last seven starts and is 3-1-0 with a 1.23 GAA and a .957 PCT in his last four games. He made 36 saves in a 3-2 shootout win over the Ducks in Newark on Friday. It was his 40th shootout win, most ever by an NHL goalie. He is 40-20 lifetime in shootouts.
He was on top of his game tonight,” said Parise after the game. “Big saves. I felt like he had a few big ones in each period and in overtime too when we were scrambling a little bit and then he was really good in the shootout again. He was the best player on the ice in my opinion tonight.”
Because of his improved play, Brodeur is reportedly not thinking that this game might be his last in his hometown. In 27 career starts at Bell Centre, he is 18-8-1 with a 1.55 goals-against average, .944 save percentage and five shutouts.
Where the Devils are weakest is on defence as they have been for the last two seasons. The need has been most pronounced lately since rookie Adam Larsson, who has been Jersey’s top d-man this season has missed seven straight game with a bruised lower back. He wasl placed on injured reserve Saturday so won’t face the Habs on Sunday. The Devils are also without their best veteran defenceman, Henrik Tallinder (blood clot, lower leg); he’s not due back for at least another week.
Lamoriello is rumored to be shopping for help on the blue line. The word last week was that he was about to pick up Marek Zidlicky from Minnesota but that hasn’t happened yet.
The Devils have been able to get by their weak blue line corps by sticking to coach Pete DeBoer’s system, which retained the Jacques Lemaire structure in the defensive zone while allowing the forwards more freedom when they have the puck. The players have bought in wholeheartedly and the results are starting to speak for themselves.
On special teams, the Devils are an adventure. The power play is still midpack, as they’ve been much of the season, and they still lead the league in surrendering shorthanded goals — 13. On the penalty kill, they’re still right behind the Habs in second spot and they lead the league in shorthanded goals — also 13.
Here’s how they could line up on Sunday.
Zach Parise, Adam Henrique, Ilya Kovalchuk
Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, David Clarkson
Alexei Ponikarovsky, Dainius Zubrus, Steve Bernier
Eric Boulton, Jacob Josefson, Nick Palmieri
Andy Greene. Mark Fayne
Bryce Salvador. Anton Volchenkov
Matt Taormina, Kurtis Foster