Three weeks is all it took for the New Jersey Devils to go from a postseason question mark to an Eastern Conference playoff team. One more day and they could be improbable division champions.
New Jersey seeks its 11th straight victory when it faces the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a pivotal regular-season finale for both clubs.
The Devils trail the Atlantic Division-leading New York Rangers by one point and are tied with Philadelphia—against whom they own the head-to-head tiebreaker—for the fifth seed, while the seventh-place Canadiens need one point to advance to the postseason for the third time in four seasons.
Montreal has a one-point lead over Tampa Bay, which is trying to hold off Atlanta for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Lightning conclude the regular season Tuesday when they host Washington.
The Devils are in position to overtake the Rangers and win their sixth division title in nine seasons, needing one point and a New York loss in regulation against Ottawa on Tuesday to do it.
New Jersey owns the first tiebreaker (wins) and the second (head-to-head) over the Rangers, and can clinch the division after trailing New York and Philadelphia by 11 points as recently as March 26.
Since then, the Devils have run off 10 consecutive victories, including three over the Flyers, and outscored their opponents 38-19.
“It was far-fetched to think about the title,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said after the Devils’ 5-1 win over the Flyers on Sunday. “We just went about our business. It took us all these games in a row to put us in this position.”
Brodeur has a 1.88 goals-against average during the streak and allowed three goals or less nine times.
Gionta, whose 46th goal extended his point streak to 14 games, is tied with Pat Verbeek for the franchise single-season goal record.
Gionta has three goals and three assists in three games against Montreal this season.
The Canadiens have alternated wins and losses in their last five games following an eight-game winning streak. They have just 12 goals during that span.
“I’m not worried about it,” said Canadiens coach and GM Bob Gainey after a 4-2 loss to Buffalo on Saturday. “We’ve been in this mode for six, eight weeks and we haven’t been able to stretch ourselves away from that line that’s drawn between the eighth and ninth team.”
Michael Ryder scored his team-high 30th goal in the second period and Mike Komisarek scored just 45 seconds later, but the Sabres’ Ryan Miller stopped 43 shots, including all 15 he faced in the third.
Ryder is the first Canadiens player to reach 30 goals since Richard Zednik in 2002-03. home.