The New Jersey Devils knew they would have a difficult time replacing the production of Ilya Kovalchuk when the star winger went down with an injury more than three weeks ago, but few could've expected a slump like this.
Kovalchuk could be back in uniform for Thursday night's road contest versus the Philadelphia Flyers as both teams look to improve their slim playoff chances.
New Jersey was in seventh place in the Eastern Conference when Kovalchuk suffered a shoulder injury in a 2-1 win over Florida on March 23. The Devils (15-17-10) have dropped 10 straight since, scoring 16 goals in that span.
The defending conference champions outshot their last two opponents 65-24 but lost 2-0 in both contests, Friday to Ottawa and Monday to Toronto. They have lost five times when allowing 18 or fewer shots during the skid.
New Jersey trails the New York Rangers for the final East playoff spot with six games remaining, and would have to pass four teams to get in. The Devils haven't gone winless in 11 straight since an 0-7-4 slide in 1990-91.
"I think we could have won our last six or seven games, and I don't doubt that we can win six or seven in a row,'' coach Peter DeBoer said. ''We don't have to change a lot to do that other than to score a few goals.''
Kovalchuk, whose 10 goals and 17 assists have him second on the team in points behind Patrik Elias with 31, could provide a boost if he's able to return Thursday. He has recorded two goals and four assists as the Devils have gone 3-0-1 versus the Flyers this season.
Kovalchuk has 10 goals and 20 assists in 28 games versus the Flyers since being traded to New Jersey in February 2010.
Philadelphia (19-21-3), one point ahead of the Devils, has won two straight after beating the Rangers 4-2 on Tuesday. The Flyers have scored 11 goals in those contests after netting three while dropping their previous four games.
"Anything can happen," winger Brayden Schenn told the team's official website after scoring his eighth goal. "We are not going to quit, whether we are five points back or three points back. We are going to fight until the end and there are still ten points up for grabs for us. A lot can happen so we're going to keep on fighting until the end."
Steve Mason, acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline, made 38 saves as Ilya Bryzgalov got the night off. Coach Peter Laviolette is likely to turn back to Bryzgalov, 5-2-0 with a 3.01 goals-against average in his last seven starts.
"We're in a hole," Laviolette said. "We put ourselves here and we accept that. I think it's important that we just keep fighting. To continue to compete and to continue to push, I'm proud of the guys."
Bryzgalov made 27 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over the Devils in the last meeting March 15 that ended Philadelphia's seven-game losing streak in the series. However, he allowed 12 goals while dropping the first three matchups this season.
He's likely to be opposed by Martin Brodeur, who has started every game of New Jersey's losing streak. He's 3-1-0 with a 1.50 GAA in his last four versus the Flyers.
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