The New Jersey Devils don’t exactly feel like they have righted their ship, but they are playing better than they were not too long ago.
The Devils look to clinch the Atlantic Division title as they go for their third straight win Tuesday night when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs.
New Jersey (49-26-4) seemed poised to make a run at the top record in the East, but lost six straight from March 22-April 1, with only one coming in overtime. The Devils have bounced back a bit with two one-goal wins, 5-4 over Tampa Bay on Friday and 3-2 at Buffalo on Saturday.
“It hasn’t been easy,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “We haven’t played a full 60 minutes. But we’ve played well enough to win hockey games and that’s the bottom line.”
The Devils are seven points ahead of Philadelphia in the Atlantic race, and only need one more point to clinch.
They also sit two points behind Southeast Division champion Washington in the race for the No. 2 seed. New Jersey plays two of its final three games at home while the Capitals play their last three on the road.
The improved play of captain Jamie Langenbrunner was a big reason why New Jersey ended its losing streak with the back-to-back wins. He had three goals and one assist in the two games after managing only one goal and two assists during the six-game slide.
“The last few weeks have been tough for us,” Langenbrunner said after Saturday’s win. “But last night, we were able to scratch out a win. And tonight, the first two periods were the best we’ve played in a while.”
Langenbrunner and his teammates haven’t fared too well against Toronto (32-34-13) this year. The Maple Leafs used shootouts to win the first two meetings before New Jersey won 3-2 in overtime on March 3.
Brodeur improved to 4-0 since returning from elbow surgery in that victory. He lost his next start, then won five in a row before starting every game of the Devils’ six-game slide. Brodeur has a 3.51 goals-against average in his last eight games, including Friday’s win over Tampa Bay when he entered in relief of an injured Kevin Weekes.
The Maple Leafs haven’t been much of a threat recently with four losses in five games. They have conceded 28 goals in that span, including dismal defensive efforts in back-to-back losses.
Toronto fell 8-5 at Philadelphia on Friday, and returned home to lose 6-2 to Montreal the next night.
Coach Ron Wilson called out his players after the last two defeats.
“We’ve had a couple of guys come back off of injuries that have wanted to play, but haven’t played very hard,” Wilson said. “You send some guys down who worked really hard here, some of the younger people who give you effort. That’s the difference, it’s just that simple.”
Wilson did not specify which players he was referring to. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle returned for Toronto on Wednesday after missing nearly a month with a broken hand while left wing Niklas Hagman came back March 28 after being out over a month with a concussion.