By Max Herman
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After being as many as 27 points out of 8th place in early January, the New Jersey Devils have spent the last 25 games pushing to get themselves included in the Eastern Conference playoff picture…

And when I say pushing, I mean pushing like a pregnant chick in the midst of pumping out triplets…

Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Devils were on a 20-2-2 run, and all of a sudden a concept that once seemed crazier than a weekend with Charlie Sheen had morphed into a very real possibility.

Spirits in the locker room were high. And why not? The team wasn’t necessarily winning because they were playing perfect hockey every night. They just seemed to be bulletproof…

And that’s when the last-place Ottawa Senators came to town…

The game was the second in a crucial stretch of six games in which the Devils play the Islanders, Senators, and Thrashers twice each. The common thread between those three opponents being of course that, like the Devils, they are all currently on the outside of the top eight.

Even some of the pessimists among Devils’ fans had to look at this stretch and think, “You know, with the way they’ve been playing, it’s not crazy to think they can earn all 12 of those points…”

Well, it took the Devils a shootout to beat the Islanders at the Coliseum on Sunday, but beat them they did. And despite not playing their best hockey in some of their recent games, there were the last-place Ottawa Senators next on the schedule. Surely this would be an easy two points for New Jersey, right? …Well that, my friends, is why they play the games…

Maybe they were just due for a loss. Maybe it was a classic trap game. But in losing to the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night, the Devils lost more than just a hockey game. They lost their air of invincibility.

Sure, the Devils have been on the losing end four other times during their epic run, so it’s not like this is the first time they’ve hit a roadblock during this strech. But this one was different…

The two overtime losses to the Panthers were tough to swallow, but at least the Devils earned a point out of each of those games. And you can hardly call road losses at Tampa Bay and Detroit a disgrace.

But after all of this uphill climbing, when you have the opportunity to move within 6 points of a playoff spot with 16 games left to play, and you stumble over the doormat of the Eastern Conference, it reminds you that the line between achieving the unimaginable and coming up just short is paper thin.

As I watched the game unfold, I found myself expecting it to just follow the same old script… I mean, didn’t you?

Tie game. 3rd period. I’m thinking, “OK, it hasn’t been pretty but eventually the Devils will wear this team down and put one in. This is the Senators we’re talkin’ about here after all…”

And if you were thinking that way too, you had every reason in the world to. After all, the Devils had won 10 of the previous 11 one-goal games they had been involved in. Why would this game against the worst team in the East break that mold?

But with just 2:13 separating them from overtime – and a guaranteed point might I add – it finally happened. Lady Luck got tired with the Devils for at least one night and decided she was gonna flirt with the competition.

Instead of the usual 3rd period magic the Devils have routinely been conjuring up of late, it was the Senators who got the lucky bounce…

Jason Spezza sent what would have been a harmless shot in Brodeur’s direction, but it deflected off of Andy Greene’s skate right onto the stick of Erik Condra, who was already crashing the net for a potential rebound. All Condra had to do was take it and poke it past Brodeur, and that would prove to be the game-winner.

Now I’m not here to tell you that this loss puts a dagger in the Devils’ postseason dreams or anything like that. Because I actually think there is a way to view this as a positive…

Even though the Devils have played some tremendous hockey during the last couple of months, they’ve also gotten away with some mediocre performances just because they resulted in wins. A loss against a team like Ottawa reinforces that at this stage of the season, you have to find a way to compensate for tired legs because you can’t just expect the the bounces to continue to go your way forever.

All of the players I talked to after the game were saying all the right things. Obviously there was a great deal of disappointment, but no one seemed to be letting the loss get to them more than it should. The general attitude was one of ‘on to the next one.’

But there is one flaw in the team’s game that was magnified by the loss vs. Ottawa that does trouble me going forward, and that is the enigma that is the Devils’ power play.

For as good as the Devils have been, and as dangerous as Ilya Kovalchuk has become, without looking up his stats you might think that Kovy has tallied at least a decent share of PPG’s over the course of this incredible stretch. But what would you say if I were to tell you that Kovalchuk has scored exactly 2 power play goals since December 21st? It appears we have a glitch in the matrix.

During the 2nd period on Tuesday night, the Devs saw a stretch of 4:33 of game time that gave them three straight power play opportunities, including two 5-on-3’s. But they came up completely empty-handed. Had they gotten a goal there, they would have gotten on the board first instead of Ottawa, and maybe things would have gone differently…

The point of all of this, though, is that with every remaining game on the schedule being so vital to so many teams, every game is taking on the same sort of feel. They are a lot tighter defensively with fewer offensive risks being taken. So when you do get a chance with a man-advantage, it is absolutely crucial that you cash in on some of the scoring chances you can generate from it. The Devils have too much talent on their PP unit to not be able to figure this out.

But let’s try to keep this loss to the Senators in perspective. Was it an inexcusable loss against a crap team? Yes it was. Does it mean the Devils are done for? Not on your life. Not yet anyway. The upcoming schedule remains favorable, and if they can manage to get right back on track, who knows? Maybe come April we’ll simply remember this game as a tiny bump in the Devils’ road to the history books…

Max’s Three Stars Of The Week

Third Star: G Martin Brodeur

I think we can all agree that Johan Hedberg did an outstanding job holding down the fort in goal while Marty was injured, but Brodeur has been razor-sharp since his return, earning wins in 4 of his 5 starts. He didn’t allow more than 2 goals in any of those starts, nor has he in any game since January 26th for that matter. Now you might say that’s partly due to Jacques Lemaire’s defensive-minded system, but his .937 save percentage in that 5-game stretch says it has more to do with the fact that he’s really good…

Second Star: LW Brian Rolston

I snubbed Rollie from my Three Stars selection last time, but I guess Brian wanted to make sure I didn’t forget about him. He’s posted 8 points in his last 11 games with 5 goals, including 2 on the power play. And make no mistake about it, if the Devils ever do sort out their issues with the extra man, Rolston and his heavy slapshot figure to be a big part of the solution…

First Star: LW Ilya Kovalchuk

Despite not having his best individual effort vs. Ottawa on Tuesday, Kovy is still the slam dunk choice for my first star selection once again. He did have a goal in each of the prior three games and his 9 game-winning goals this season are tied with Alexander Ovechkin for tops in the NHL. Plain and simple, he’s been the most electrifying player in the NHL over the past two months, bar none. I dare you to tell me who’s been better…

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