Category archive: New Jersey Devils

It almost defies logic, but somehow the Pittsburgh Penguins are first in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of New Jersey, despite losing all five games to the Devils this season.

The teams' season series finale is tonight in Newark, and this is a game that has all kinds of meaning for both teams.

The Devils, with a game in hand, can tie the Pens for the division lead and head into the playoffs with the confidence of a 6-0-0 sweep of the reigning Cup champs. (Put that card in the deck and pull it out later in the spring, if you know what I mean.)

The Pens need a win to put a little space between first and second place in the Atlantic and, perhaps more important, know they can finally beat Martin Brodeur and his team this season.

"Our players know exactly the situation and where we're at," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com on Tuesday before the team's flight got off the tarmac in Pittsburgh. "We know what this game is for, what's at stake and how close they are. This game will be real important as to where we end up."

And winning the division also hands that team the likely second seed in the East for the playoffs, whereas the Atlantic Division runner-up likely gets the fourth seed. Perhaps I'm looking too far ahead, but barring any upsets (I know, I know), that means the Atlantic Division winner avoids Washington until the conference finals.

But back to tonight's game. The X factor is whether star Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (leg) plays. He did not skate Tuesday.

"We'll see [Wednesday] morning how he's doing," Bylsma said. "Day to day, even in our ambiguous world, is pretty accurate. I'm still kind of hoping for [Wednesday]. There's still a chance."

With or without Malkin (he has no points in four games against the Devils this season), the Pens will again have their hands full. Here's a recap of the season series:

Oct. 24 at Pittsburgh: 4-1 Devils
Nov. 12 at Pittsburgh: 4-1 Devils
Dec. 21 at Pittsburgh: 4-0 Devils
Dec. 30 at New Jersey: 2-0 Devils
Friday at New Jersey: 3-1 Devils

"I think the common theme so far is that we've had a difficult time maintaining our focus on playing our game," Bylsma said. "Especially the first four -- they got leads, they got a power-play goal, and we weren't generating the kind of space and room and offensive-zone time that we like. We get a little frustrated and we don't stay with the plan. That's really been the common theme in the games against them and that'll be the challenge when we face them again [Wednesday]: How long can we play our game and stick with our game?"

More on the season series from our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau:

• Pittsburgh had the shot edge in four of the five games (33-26, 26-25, 35-30, 32-33, 35-32).

• The Penguins have gone 0-18 on the power play, the Devils 3-16.

• The Devils are just the third team in NHL history to win their first five games against the defending Stanley Cup champion in one season. The other teams to do that were the 1938-39 Bruins, who won all eight games against the Blackhawks (1938 Cup winners), and the 1943-44 Canadiens, who won the first six games they played the Red Wings (1943 Cup winners).

• Brodeur is 5-0-0 with a 0.60 goals-against average and a .981 save percentage (three goals against on 161 shots); Marc-Andre Fleury has played and lost four games (4.04, .857, 14 goals against on 98 shots).

As Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review told me Tuesday, the story in this season series has been Brodeur.

Much has been made this season of Brodeur's apparent second-half slump and his big-stage demotion at the Olympics, but don't tell the Penguins that. All they see is the game's all-time winningest goalie shutting the door on them.

"Well, we're not questioning him," Bylsma said with a laugh. "His numbers are unbelievable. What he's done in his career is close to mind-boggling. He's always been able to elevate his game. And certainly, we've seen that from him this year. He's been very good. I think he's been the same ol' Marty for us."

Martin Brodeur's cell phone was on overload Thursday night.

It seemed the whole world wanted him to know his New Jersey Devils had just acquired the most talented offensive player on this season's NHL trade market. And he was pumped about the news.

Turns out the NHL's all-time winningest goalie won't have to pitch shutouts for the Devils to win playoff games in the spring. Two-time 50-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk has been parachuted in from the Atlanta Thrashers thanks to one of Lou Lamoriello's most aggressive moves in his storied history as Devils GM.

"We just got ourselves a top scorer," Brodeur texted me. "I'm happy of the commitment from the organization toward our team. He will bring a different look to our team."

Uh, yeah.

When you consider the Devils have never produced a 50-goal scorer in their franchise history, I think you can say Kovalchuk brings a different look to this team. Even if it might be for just a few months.

If you're the 37-year-old Brodeur, it's about the here and now. So that's why he was ecstatic Thursday night. The Devils have a shot this season, so why not go for it?

Lamoriello saw his team dip to 21st in the NHL in goals per game, the lowest of the top 10 teams in the NHL standings. Of course, the Devils are first as usual in goals against, but I think the team's lack of a deep run in the postseason since the lockout convinced Lamoriello that defense isn't the only thing he needs.

What's more interesting to me is Lamoriello decided he needed this fix only recently after his Devils began to sputter. It's usually unlike him to act so fast on something of this magnitude, but that's exactly what happened.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell was in New Jersey on Sunday scouting the Los Angeles Kings for the potential Kovalchuk deal. The Devils had never called him at that point.

"The next day, I got a call from Lou just exploring where I was in the process and what I was looking for," Waddell said Thursday night. "So with New Jersey, it just started this week. Lou is a very determined person; he knows what he wants to do and he knows what he can afford to give up, so the process with them moved very quickly."

Imagine that. You've got Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, among others, dutifully working on this thing for weeks, and the Devils come in from the backstretch and win the race. Good ol' Lou.

Will the move be good enough? I like it even better if Paul Martin is the Paul Martin of old when he finally returns. An offense now led by Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner is pretty good. It still doesn't rank with Washington and Pittsburgh in the East, but then again, those teams don't have Brodeur in goal.

Kovalchuk has zero career playoff victories, so we really don't know how he'll react on this kind of stage or to the first time coach Jacques Lemaire tells him there is indeed something called the defensive zone. But if he embraces playoff hockey with the Devils the way he embraced winning gold medals for Russia at the past two world championships, Devils fans just might be in for a treat come April.

As for Atlanta, I doubt Waddell could have done better under the circumstances. Kovalchuk was going to walk as an unrestricted free agent on July 1; the Thrashers had to not only get something in return for their most important asset but also do it while not pulling the plug on their chase for a playoff spot. That's a balancing act, and acquiring a top-four blueliner in Johnny Oduya and a decent second-line winger in Niclas Bergfors to help the team right now was paramount.

"It was important for us to make sure we added two assets to our roster right now," Waddell said.

Looking ahead, the Thrashers are real high on Patrice Cormier, the captain of Canada's world juniors team last month whose vicious elbow got him suspended for the rest of the season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Keep in mind Atlanta's associate GM is Rick Dudley, whose scouting acumen is right up there with that of anybody in the game. He helped build the Chicago Blackhawks you're seeing tear up the NHL these days. If Dudley says Cormier is a keeper, that's good enough for me.

"We had asked for Cormier, and they were really resilient about that; they wanted to talk about other prospects," Waddell said. "I said to Lou, 'This is an important piece for us, and it has to be in the deal.' Once we got past that point, we were able to get it done."

Listen, the Thrashers are not as good a team today without Kovalchuk. Not even close. But you can't blame Waddell for balking at giving a player the maximum allowed under the salary cap this year, $11.35 million a year. He confirmed Thursday night that amount is what Kovalchuk wanted in a long-term deal.

I don't blame Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman for asking. If Kovy hits the unrestricted free-agent market in July, he'll be the youngest superstar in that position. But I agree with Waddell: You can't build a championship team with a player accounting for 20 percent of your payroll. They're not paying anyone 20 percent of the cap in Pittsburgh or Detroit, the past two Stanley Cup-champion teams, so I'm not sure why any other team should, either.

My colleague and good friend Scott Burnside arrives in Phoenix on Thursday for a few days of Coyotes coverage, so I'll focus this Game of the Week preview on tonight's visiting team, the mighty New Jersey Devils.

One month and two days from now, Martin Brodeur likely will start in goal when Team Canada takes on Norway in its Olympic opener in a frenzied Vancouver.

The question is, will he be out of breath?

The 37-year-old superstar leads all NHL goalies in games played (42) and minutes played (2,459). This from a guy who four years ago in Torino, Italy, looked me straight in the face and said he figured it was his last Olympics because he wasn't sure he'd still be playing in 2010. Yeah ... OK.

Every season, Brodeur hears the talk that the Devils should spot him more nights off. Unless there's an injury, like last season, he doesn't even blink; he just goes out and plays almost every night. This time around, he could very well challenge his career high of 78 appearances from the 2006-07 season.

"He's an amazing athlete," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told ESPN.com this week.

Sean Avery didn't think so a few seasons ago when he famously questioned Brodeur's physique. Whether it's by coincidence or not, the Devils netminder has since shed some weight and toned his frame, thanks to some rigorous offseason training.

But no matter how in shape the man is, at some point, do you not worry about his workload this season, especially given that he'll be playing in the Olympics?

"The rest ratio on nongame days, that's important," Lamoriello said, noting that Brodeur gets the odd practice off when coach Jacques Lemaire sees fit. "The coaches have done a great job in monitoring it. And he also knows his body. He's felt good; he's in great shape. It's monitored daily. It's not something that's taken for granted. He gets days off when necessary. So far, everything has worked out well. And what more can you say about him? He just keeps going."

Roberto Luongo also has been on fire, especially in the past month, but I'll be shocked if Brodeur isn't the main man in Vancouver. I thought it was interesting to hear Curtis Joseph reminisce about the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City during his retirement news conference Tuesday. It's an experience that carries mixed feelings for CuJo. He was yanked after an opening loss to Sweden and never saw the net again, as Brodeur came in and helped lead Canada to a gold medal.

But eight years later, it's a move Joseph understands.

"Marty was in a zone," Joseph said. "I remember watching him in practice; he was in a zone, for sure. He was the best guy to go with at the time. If you would have [seen] him in practice, he was spectacular."

That same focus is now on display for the Devils. The Olympics are around the corner, but Brodeur doesn't let his mind wander to that. He'll zero in on the Games the day he steps off the plane in Vancouver.

"Marty's focus is right here now, and that's what's so amazing about him," Lamoriello said. "He's able to focus on what's at hand and doesn't let anything that happens that day before or what's going to come the day after get in the way. He's got that ability that he's born with.

"It's going to be a great Olympics, but right now, that's not on my mind, either. We're getting ready for Phoenix."

Devils everywhere
I mentioned in Monday's blog how the Devils' reach could be felt deeply on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. Jamie Langenbrunner was named captain, and teammate Zach Parise and former Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski were named alternate captains.

Lamoriello is proud of that and reminded me those aren't the only New Jersey connections among Olympic captains.

"Patrik Elias is captain of the Czech team and [former Devils star] Scott Niedermayer of the Canadian team," Lamoriello said. "It's all well deserved. They all do one thing the same way -- they put the logo first. That's what it's all about."

Just as his team is doing yet again this season.

"We've been very fortunate," the New Jersey GM said. "Everybody in our organization buys into the same philosophy. They buy into exactly what it takes to win. It's not about individuals. It could be anybody on any given night.

"You can't ask for more than the ways these guys have responded this year."