NEWARK, N.J. -- While the New Jersey Devils were in the midst of their worst start to a season since 1983-84, goaltender Martin Brodeur wondered how they were going to get through it.
“Thirty-40 games ago, we were like ‘How are we gonna play the second half?’” Brodeur said after the Devils (33-32-4) defeated the Atlanta Thrashers 4-2 on Tuesday night to move over the .500 mark for the first time all season. “‘Are we gonna just kill time and finish the season?’”
On Jan. 8, after they fell to 10-29-2 and were 27 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, it was easy to understand why Brodeur and the rest of his teammates would think that way.
At that point, there was no hope. No reason to believe they’d be doing anything but playing golf come the spring.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, something improbable happened: they turned it around.
“We definitely are a long ways from where we want to be,” Brodeur said, “but at least every game counts now and it’s fun. We’re coming to the rink, getting ourselves prepared, knowing the next two weeks are big for us. We’re going to try to win our games and maybe we’ll have a shot. We’re still a bit away from the playoffs, but we’re definitely happy with ourselves right now.”
When you’ve won three straight, 15 of your last 17, 23 of your last 28 and you now trail the Buffalo Sabres by just six points for that eighth and final playoff spot, it’s hard not be ecstatic. And yet, interim coach Jacques Lemaire doesn’t want his team to rest on its laurels: because, after all, there’s still work to be done.
“No, we can’t sit back and admire what we’ve accomplished,” Lemaire said. “This one’s over and you start to look forward to tomorrow. And you go on like that. You don’t sit down and say how good we’ve done. We know. It’s in the back of our mind. But we don’t want to stay there and think about and try something else or take it easy, because we can’t.”
Lemaire will be the first to tell you he thought this type of run was impossible. He said as much after the Devils beat the New York Islanders on Saturday to get back to the .500 mark for the first since the first game of the season -- if, of course, you even count that (0-0-1).
“When we were at our lowest point, I would’ve said the same thing,” center Travis Zajac said. “But right now it’s fun, we’re winning games, we know what it takes to win right now, and the whole team is contributing, which also helps win games.”
Tuesday night epitomized as much. Although Brodeur (15-2-1, 1.70 GAA, .930 SV PCT since Jan. 1) made 18 saves and superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk (30 points since second half) provided the empty-netter to seal the deal, it was the Devils’ newly formed “Kid Line” of Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson and David Clarkson that provided the game-winner.
With 15:46 left in the third period, the puck was chipped into the Atlanta zone. Tedenby went in with an aggressive forecheck, won the puck on the far boards and sent a perfect pass to Josefson, who one-timed it from the top of the left circle to give the Devils a 3-2 lead they’d never relinquish.
“We take it one game at a time and we try to win those games, every game,” Tedenby said. “That’s what we want to do, and that’s what we’re fighting for every game. If we keep having a little luck like this, we have a chance.”
In the end, though, as Zajac and others have said, the reason the Devils have this chance is because of the way they turned things around defensively. Since Feb. 6, the Devils have not given up more than two goals in regulation and have surrendered an average of only 1.4 goals per game.
“We’ve just been playing as a five-man unit,” said Zajac, who ended up scoring a crucial goal at the end of the first period to bring the Devils to within a goal of the Thrashers after the opening 20 minutes. “Everyone is helping out defensively, and that’s made us more dangerous offensively because we get the puck out of our zone quicker. We have more time offensively with the puck, and now we’re getting more chances.”
However, until Tuesday night, they hadn’t really turned those chances into goals. The four goals the Devils scored against the Thrashers were the most they’ve scored since Jan. 3 (three).
Of course, they’ve been able to keep the run going because they’ve been able to hold on in one-goal games. They’re 7-2-0 in their last nine one-game games. On Tuesday night, however, they had to rally back from a two-goal deficit, and they did so with resiliency and a sense of urgency.
It’s the same resiliency and sense of urgency they’ve played with since the second half began.
“To me it’s very simple,” Lemaire said. “I’ve tried to put less pressure on the players -- that’s really important -- and to put their mind where it should be: on the next game.”
Playing it “one game at a time” has gotten the Devils into 10th place in the East.
Only time will tell where they go from here.
But even if they are playing golf come the spring, at least they'll be able to hold their heads high doing it.
You can follow Mike Mazzeo on Twitter: @MazzESPN