Red-hot Devils won't give up playoff dream

TORONTO -- Funny how an 11-1-2 run can lighten the mood.

Even on what felt like the Titanic in the first half of the season.

"We've come a long way," New Jersey Devils winger David Clarkson said Thursday afternoon at Air Canada Centre, in a visitors dressing room with lots of smiles. "It's one of those things that we were doing so bad early; it's like when you back someone in the corner, we've come out swinging. We have confidence right now."

For the first 41 games, it couldn't go much worse. At 10-29-2 and dead last in the NHL, coming to work was a grind.

"I got hurt last year and missed three months," Clarkson said. "I said to my wife, 'This is the hardest thing I've ever been through.' After the beginning of this season, I went back to her and said, 'Actually, it wasn't that bad, because this year has been even harder.' Every time you got on the ice, a goal went in against us. We had like 10 guys over minus-20 because we were having that rough a go. The majority of us haven't been minus our whole career. It was tough."

Coach Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean behind the bench just before Christmas and saw his team lose seven of his first eight games. He wondered what he had just walked into.

"I was looking for a bridge, so I can jump," Lemaire said Thursday.

But a home-and-home sweep of Tampa Bay Jan. 9 and 14 finally got the ball rolling. With each win, that long-lost confidence returned.

And Thursday night's 2-1 overtime win over the Maple Leafs gave Lemaire his 600th career victory.

"We're having fun and we've got confidence. That's key," Clarkson said. "Everybody is playing more like a group, whereas before maybe we [were] trying to do our own thing. So, it's been exciting lately; it's been fun. But we have a long way to go. It's not going to be easy. We need a favors from team but we have to believe we have a chance. That's what is going to help us play."

If you haven't guessed, he's talking about the playoffs. Yes, 13 points out after Thursday night's win, the Devils have clung to the playoff dream. And why not, with the way they're playing?

"They will try to do it through the rest of the season," Lemaire said. "It's always how good you are and how much time you've got, how many games left. There's a lot of stuff. But overall, you've got to be satisfied with what the guys are doing. You have to be. I know they feel better. They have more fun, which that's what I want. They enjoy their work more, which I want. So, we're OK."

Ilya Kovalchuk shouldered much of the blame in the first half after signing the big contract that overshadowed training camp. He put up only 21 points in 40 games in the opening half of the season (scratched for one game) and didn't help himself with that outside criticism. But much like with his teammates, the second half has brought change. He has 15 points (8-7) in 14 games, including the overtime winner Thursday, and further, has been watching video between games and is playing a more well-rounded game.

"I'm really close with Ilya," Clarkson said. "He's a great guy; he's the biggest team guy you'll meet. He takes care of the young guys in here really well. It's nice to see him scoring every night and doing all the little things that he can do. But I don't think he was having a bad season at the beginning of the year, but all of us a team weren't molding together. Now we're playing as a team and Ilya is leading us right now. It's fun to watch."