NEWARK, N.J. – Now that the New Jersey Devils are making a push back to the top of the Atlantic Division they can stop peeking at the standings.
Coach Jacques Lemaire mentioned his club’s placement before a key matchup with the playoff-hopeful Boston Bruins, and the Devils responded with a 3-2 victory Monday night. New Jersey climbed within two points of division-leading Pittsburgh and will host the first-place Penguins on Wednesday – five days after the Devils beat them at home.
“You always look at the standings when your team is not winning,” Lemaire said. “When you’re winning, you don’t have to.”
Following a 3-7-1 slump that dropped the Devils into second place, New Jersey has rallied to win three of four – including three straight at home, where the Devils will play four of five.
The Devils shook off a disappointing loss at the last-place New York Islanders on Saturday and improved to 3-0 against Boston, the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference.
“That team was desperate. They have to win games, too,” Lemaire said.
David Clarkson had a goal and an assist as the Devils scored three times in the first period against Tim Thomas.
Clarkson took the shot that Rob Niedermayer deflected in and then scored on a breakaway – set up by goalie Martin Brodeur – to make in 2-0. Zach Parise finished the barrage that assured the Devils (41-24-3) their 18th straight .500 or better season.
They are looking for a repeat performance against the Penguins.
“We’ve got to come out and play the same way,” Clarkson said. “We’ve got to be playing playoff hockey every night.”
Blake Wheeler scored for the third consecutive game to cut Boston’s deficit to 3-1 at 43 seconds of the middle period, but the Bruins failed to stretch their lead in the playoff race. Boston is one point ahead of the New York Rangers and has played one fewer game.
“We did a great job battling back,” forward Shawn Thornton said. “We didn’t hang our heads, like you might have witnessed earlier in the year. That’s a positive, but there are only 14 games left. Points are at a premium. Almost good enough isn’t good enough.”
Patrice Bergeron made it 3-2 with 1:03 left after goalie Tuukka Rask was pulled for an extra skater.
“Obviously, these points are huge,” Bergeron said. “We can’t let them slip like that.”
Brodeur made 34 saves for the Devils, 3-0 against Boston this season.
“It’s a lot different to play teams that are out and teams that are competing to stay in,” Brodeur said. “That intensity, as players it keeps you more accountable.”
After a sloppy first 10 minutes that featured several turnovers and multiple stoppages, the Devils dominated the final half of the period and stormed to a 3-0 lead.
Niedermayer started it at 9:58 when he tipped in Clarkson’s shot from the slot that was let go as he fell to the ice. Clarkson pushed the advantage to two with 2:47 remaining.
Brodeur fired a long pass from the crease past the red line and onto Clarkson’s stick. Without breaking stride, Clarkson split a pair of defenders and skated in on Thomas. Shifting back and forth, Clarkson settled the puck on his backhand and slid in his eighth goal.
Clarkson, who missed 23 games from Dec. 31-Feb.13 due to a broken leg, scored for the first time since Nov. 16.
His goal was still being announced when Parise made it 3-0 45 seconds later. Thomas stopped Mike Mottau’s shot but couldn’t control the rebound. Parise found the puck in front and backhanded in his 32nd goal. Parise was pointless in three of four games.
“We have to continue to move forward,” Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. “Tonight wasn’t perfect, but we found a way to get a win.”
Thomas didn’t make it out for the second period, marking the fifth time this season he has been pulled. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner made only his fifth start in 14 games and dropped his third straight decision (0-2-1). He stopped nine of 12 shots.
“We didn’t help him,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “We talked it over at the end of the period and decided it was the right thing to do. It changed the momentum, and gave the team a bit of a wake-up call.”
Thomas had 36 wins with an NHL-best 2.10 goals-against average last season in leading Boston to the top seed in the East. Thomas has only 15 wins with a 2.57 goals-against average in 40 games this season, a key reason why the Bruins are fighting for a playoff spot.
Rask stopped all 16 shots he faced.
“We’re gauging ourselves on wins,” Julien said. “We dug a hole for ourselves in the first period. Against a team like that, it’s not easy to come back.”
NOTES: Brodeur has three assists this season and 34 in his career, tying Ed Belfour for sixth on the NHL list for goalies. … Boston is 2-3-1 on its seven-game road trip. It will end Tuesday at Carolina. … Niedermayer had a goal disallowed in the second when he deflected in a shot with a high stick.