(AP) — The New Jersey Devils may have dug themselves too big of a hole, but their ongoing surge has at least given them an outside shot of making a 14th consecutive postseason appearance.
The Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning could put a dent in those playoff hopes over the next week.
Looking for their seventh straight victory at St. Pete Times Forum, the Devils will try to post their first nine-game winning streak since 2007 as the Lightning close an NHL record-tying 12-game homestand Friday night.
Twenty-seven points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot on Jan. 8 following a 2-15-0 skid, New Jersey (26-30-4) has climbed within nine points of eighth-place Carolina thanks to a 16-1-2 run.
That stretch began with back-to-back wins over Tampa Bay, 6-3 at home on Jan. 9 and 5-2 at St. Pete Times Forum five days later. The Lightning now look to return the favor, going for their first home win over the Devils since Oct. 4, 2007, before visiting New Jersey on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s 1-0 victory at Dallas gave the Devils an eight-game win streak for the third consecutive season, but they haven’t won nine straight since Nov. 17-Dec. 7, 2007.
“It’s the whole group that plays hard and bears down on the little things that makes this team better,” said coach Jacques Lemaire, 17-8-2 since taking over for the fired John MacLean on Dec. 23. “They have intensity. Everyone is on the same page, it’s a lot easier.”
It’s also become much easier with star winger Ilya Kovalchuk playing at the level that earned him a $100 million contract in the offseason. He has a team-high 11 goals and 21 points in the last 19 games and is riding a career-best 11-game point streak after notching an assist on Nick Palmieri’s game-winner Tuesday.
New Jersey’s defense has been equally impressive, yielding one goal over the last three games and allowing two or fewer in eight straight.
Martin Brodeur, who has not played the last seven contests after spraining his knee at Montreal on Feb. 6, could serve as Johan Hedberg’s backup for the fourth straight game. Hedberg, named the NHL’s second star Monday, has a 1.03 goals-against average while playing every minute since Brodeur was hurt.
Hedberg has a 4.05 GAA in his last seven starts versus the Lightning, losing five, but hasn’t faced them since last season. Brodeur turned away 63 of 68 shots in last month’s matchups.
The Lightning (35-18-7), who have lost 12 of 13 overall to the Devils, are looking to build momentum for a three-game eastern swing as they conclude a stretch that has kept them at home since Jan. 23.
Sparked by Teddy Purcell’s first career hat trick and a career high-tying five points from captain Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay avoided a season-high fourth straight defeat and improved to 6-2-3 on its homestand with Wednesday’s 8-3 victory over Phoenix, which had won eight in a row.
“It’s a very positive homestand against a bunch of difficult opponents,” said coach Guy Boucher, whose team holds a three-point division lead over Washington. “And then we’ve got the final game on Friday to get that push against another team that just doesn’t lose.”
The Lightning could have Curtis McElhinney in net after acquiring him from Anaheim on Thursday for goaltender Dan Ellis.
Dwayne Roloson, who has a 4.27 GAA in his last six games, gave up four goals on nine shots in the Jan. 14 loss to New Jersey – his fifth start with the Lightning after being acquired from the New York Islanders.
Updated February 24, 2011
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