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New Jersey Devils hope the worst is over on eve of playoffs

NEWARK, N.J. - The New Jersey Devils aren't wasting time worrying about who they will face in the opening round of the playoffs next week.

They are more concerned about themselves after hitting bump at the end of the regular season for the second straight year.

A year ago, the Devils went 4-5-1 in their final 10 games and were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the rival Rangers in five games.

"It's a different team this year," said Zach Parise, who has a team-high 44 goals heading into Saturday's regular-season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the teams New Jersey could possibly face in the opening round. "Last year there didn't seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. This year there is a different mentality. I think we will be all right."

There are some who would disagree. New Jersey has won three times in its last 10 games and goaltender Martin Brodeur has slipped in recent weeks after making a remarkable return from elbow surgery in late February.

Coach Brent Sutter thinks the numbers are deceiving. The streak started with six straight losses and New Jersey has now won three of its last four, including a 3-2 shootout win over Ottawa on Thursday night that wrapped up the team's third Atlantic Division title in four years.

While he is not willing to admit the worst is behind the Devils, he is more content with the way the team has played over the last 10 days.

"We've worked hard to get ourselves to where we are back out of it," Sutter said Friday after about 10 players took part in an optional skate. "Last night was the best game we've played in three weeks, overall, from drop of the puck to finish. That's an encouraging sign."

Sutter also noted the Devils posted two tough road wins in the streak. They snapped an 0-6-1 road skid by beating the Sabres in Buffalo last weekend and then snapped the Senators franchise-record, nine-game home winning streak on Thursday night. Their win on Thursday was a franchise-record 50th of the season.

"I think we learned from last year," forward David Clarkson said. "This year is a different year, and yeah, we had a rough stretch, but I think from going through what we went through last year and having quality leaders in this room and guys we've brought in who know what it takes, I think that will be big for us."

The Devils will be the third seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs, but they may not know until Sunday night who they will be playing because Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Carolina are locked in a tight race for the Nos. 4-6 seeds.

All three teams have 97 points heading into the weekend. The Flyers have two games left, one more than the Penguins and Hurricanes.

The team that finishes fourth will have home-ice advantage for the first round.

With the extra game, the Flyers have the inside track. However, if they lose a game, the Hurricanes would control their own destiny because they have more wins than either the Flyers or Penguins, who finish at Montreal on Saturday night.

Philadelphia will play at the New York Islanders on Saturday and close at home on Sunday against the Rangers.

"Any team you are going to play in the first round will be tough," Parise said. "I don't think you can hope for an opponent or ask for an opponent. You just have to play and worry about yourself."

Left wing Patrik Elias returned to the Devils' lineup on Thursday night after missing four games with a leg injury. He expects to play on Saturday, as does defenceman Niclas Havelid, who has been out recently with a lower body injury.

"We certainly played a better game yesterday and we have to build off of that and finish the right way," Elias said. "We still have something to play for and that team (the Hurricanes) we haven't beaten this year, and who knows? We might play them in the first round. We have something to play for."

Bobby Holik, the veteran centre who was a healthy scratch against Ottawa, was a little more cautious about the Devils' chances.

"I don't know," he said. "Only the real tests will tell us. We'll have to wait to next week."


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