NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – The New Jersey Devils are somehow still alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race — barely.
The chances are so slim that even the Devils, who haven’t missed the postseason in 15 years, are resigned that the NHL’s second-longest current streak is about to end.
Just not on this night.
Andy Greene’s goal with 4:56 left snapped a tie and lifted the Devils to a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Wednesday that kept the dream alive for at least another day.
“We try hard as a group to stay in that mood,” said goalie Martin Brodeur, who has backstopped the entire playoff run. “It is hard. I have never been in this position where you have to kill six or seven games before the season ends.
“We need to get out and have a good effort every night. We’re all professionals. We want to have success even though the playoffs are out of reach.”
The Devils still have a shot at a 14th straight playoff appearance. Entering Wednesday, any combination of three points lost by the Devils or gained by Buffalo would eliminate New Jersey for the first time since 1996 — the year after the club’s first of three Stanley Cup titles.
Buffalo beat the New York Rangers 1-0 to push the Devils to the brink of elimination.
“There is not much we can control about them and how they play,” Greene said. “We just have to worry about ourselves.”
After a 23-3-2 surge that brought the Devils as close as six points to eighth, they are 2-4-1. New Jersey trails Buffalo and the Rangers by 12 points with six games remaining. The best the Devils can do is tie in points and hope to get in on tiebreakers.
A 10-29-2 mark in the first half of the season is proving to be too much to overcome.
After the Islanders erased a 2-0 deficit on a pair of goals by Frans Nielsen 4:06 apart in the third, Greene took a pass from Patrik Elias, glided into the left circle, and snapped a shot over Rick DiPietro’s left pad to give the defenseman his first goal after 34 games without one, dating to Jan. 8.
“Our first goal started to shake them a little bit,” Nielsen said. “They started to make some mistakes. We can’t let up that goal after we just tied it up.”
Ilya Kovalchuk and Jacob Josefson had broken New Jersey out of its scoring slump with goals in the first and second periods, respectively. Greene’s rare goal 1:20 after Nielsen tied it rescued the Devils.
“It’s been a while,” Greene said. “Patty made a nice play and I saw the opening and took it.”
Brodeur stopped 27 shots and had a bid for his seventh shutout end when Nielsen scored his NHL-leading seventh short-handed goal with 10:22 left. Brodeur had posted shutouts in two of his previous four outings — including a 1-0 shootout loss at Pittsburgh on Friday — to extend his NHL career record to 116.
Nielsen struck again with 6:16 remaining, poking in a loose puck in the crease for his 13th goal — one that stood up to a video review.
The Islanders, missing leading goal scorer Michael Grabner, nearly tied it again in the final 90 seconds, but Brodeur held them at bay.
“It was kind of nice for Greenie to come in and score a big goal to relieve the pressure a little bit,” Brodeur said. “They still got some at the end and we were able to hold on.”
Kovalchuk staked the Devils to a 1-0 lead just 4:17 in when he took a pass from Nick Palmieri in the slot and fired in a one-timer for his 28th.
That snapped the Devils’ streak without a goal at 178 minutes, 12 seconds — a run that began three games earlier in a 4-1 loss at Boston. New Jersey had dropped three straight, including shutout losses to Buffalo and Pittsburgh that basically snuffed out the miraculous comeback.
Josefson doubled the lead 3:23 into the second with assists from Palmieri and Kovalchuk. Palmieri unloaded a drive from the slot that DiPietro kicked out with his pad. But DiPietro lost sight of the puck, even turning around to see if it was behind him. While DiPietro faced away from the middle of the ice, Josefson raced in and scored easily into the open right side.
DiPietro made 17 saves for the Islanders, who were eliminated from postseason contention Saturday.
“This team can’t go through anything more than what they’ve been through this year,” DiPietro said. “It’s disappointing but we’ve got to bounce back.”
NOTES: Nielsen tied the Islanders record for short-handed goals in a season, matching Bob Bourne’s seven in 1980-81. The Islanders, who lead the NHL with 14 short-handed goals, set their team mark of 19 that season. … Grabner, the rookie who has 31 goals, was scratched shortly before the game because of the impending birth of his child. … Devils LW Zach Parise, who has played in only 12 games this season because of a knee injury, hopes to return to the lineup Saturday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)