By Sean Hartnett
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The Devils sent a strong message to their division rivals on Tuesday night by soundly defeating the conference-leading Rangers 4-1. It isn’t just the Rangers who need to take notice as the Devils are in the middle of a defining stretch in their season.

Having split the first two games of a nine-game stretch where they’ll face Atlantic Division rivals on eight occasions, it’s crucial for the Devils to come away with maximum points.

Over their next seven games, the Devils will play home-and-home series against the Islanders and Flyers before ending the period with back-to-back match-ups against the Penguins and Rangers.

This will give New Jersey an opportunity to jockey for a higher position in the Eastern Conference standings. If the Devils can keep up the momentum generated from Tuesday night’s victory over the Rangers, they could be sitting in fourth place in the East by the time they depart for Ottawa on March 20th.

On the other hand, if the Devils go on a losing skid, they’ll be hovering near the bottom of the East and thus, putting themselves in danger of facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.  It may be early March but the Devils have the playoffs on their mind.

“This is playoff hockey. Guys are stepping up at big moments.” Bryce Salvador stated following Tuesday’s victory.

David Clarkson spoke about the importance of keeping the good momentum going. “It’s huge. We’ve got to continue to keep winning.”

He continued, “We‘ve got to continue to keep going and keep working hard. If we do that we’ll be okay. We’ve been playing good hockey. I think lately, we’ve been up and down a bit. As a team, we’re getting better and better. Tonight was a big game. Like I said before, it’s playoff hockey. Those are the funnest games to play in all season against those guys and Philly.”

Clarkson is just one of many Devils who are taking on greater responsibilities this season. At 27, he’s enjoying his best offensive output with a career-high 26 goals and 38 points. More importantly, his hardworking tendencies and big-game experience is something that the younger players can learn from.

I asked head coach Peter DeBoer about the players’ mentality before rivalry games. “You hear it in the chatter in the dressing room. They’re real good with our young players at keeping them up and sending the right messages,” he explained post-game.

Clarkson credits veterans Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora for establishing an environment where younger players can pick up good habits and advice off veterans who have been through numerous divisional and playoff wars.

“Those guys have been in a league for a long time. You’ve got these guys who’ve done it. They’ve won cups, they have the experience. They’re trying to teach the young guys in here, myself included what it takes and we’ve got to continue to learn and get better,” Clarkson stated.

There’s also a second wave of leadership coming through in the form of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Clarkson. At this stage of his career, Kovalchuk has become more than just an offensively-blessed individual. He’s taken on more of a burden this season by logging increased minutes and becoming more outspoken inside the locker room.

You want to be yourself. They traded for me and signed me here to be myself. Marty, Sykie and Patty… all those older guys, they’re winners. They won the cups and it’s definitely nice to have those guys on your team but when you’re out there, you always want to do your best,” Kovalchuk mentioned.

Petr Sykora spoke about Kovalchuk’s impact. “He’s been important since day one and been playing great since day one. He’s a big leader in this locker room and a force for this team. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t score for ten games. He creates so much offense for the other guys that he’s irreplaceable. The last ten games, maybe he didn’t score but he created some many chances,” Sykora detailed.

The Devils will be looking to gain a measure of revenge against the Islanders tonight after they were shut out at Nassau Coliseum on Sunday. Kovalchuk sounded deeply determined when I spoke to him about carrying the momentum into Thursday against the Isles.

It better be. We lost them 1-0 in their building and we’re going to play them two more times this week. We just need to be sharp and keep going the same way,” Kovalchuk stated.

Kovalchuk ended a nine-game goal drought and coach DeBoer called him “the best player on the ice” after beating the Rangers. A goal-scoring resurgence from Kovalchuk would be hugely important but his overall impact on the ice and ability to get teammates involved will be key for the Devils during this stretch.

Devils fans, how high will New Jersey be in the standings by the end of this important stretch? Is Kovalchuk finding his best play? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.

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