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NEWARK, N.J. -- Thirty-four days earlier, they were non-believers. Thirty-four days earlier, the impossible was just that. Impossible.
But these New Jersey Devils aren't the same team that was 27 points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot 34 days earlier.
These Devils are resilient. These Devils are defying the odds. These Devils have become believers.
And with each dramatic comeback victory, they're starting to make believers out of others.
Their latest came Friday night against a San Jose Sharks team that had won nine of its last 10 games. Patrick Marleau gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead 6:08 into the third period, but Brian Rolston tied it with 10:48 remaining, and that allowed the hottest player on the NHL's hottest team to deliver again.
|Johan Hedberg made 31 saves Friday. "Heady was outstanding tonight," one teammate said.|
Ilya Kovalchuk delivered his second game-winning goal in as many nights, this time with 3:59 left, as the Devils -- capping off a stretch of seven games in 11 days -- improved to 12-1-2 in their last 15 games with a 2-1 victory over the Sharks in front of a raucous, near-sellout crowd of 17,102 at the Prudential Center.
"[Our turnaround has been] really hard to describe," said interim coach Jacques Lemaire. "It could be the guys believe they have a chance. They look at the score and they never give up. They believe they can come back. They believe they can win."
With a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 8, the Devils finished the first half of the season having dropped seven of eight and fell to 10-29-2 overall -- by far the NHL's worst record.
But since that point, the Devils have had the league's best record. And they've cut their playoff points deficit from 27 to 12 in just over a month.
"The secret?" Lemaire asked. "The guys are getting breaks. They're working. I think we're doing a decent job defensively and we're getting some breaks offensively."
They've also been getting remarkable goaltending -- even without future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur (day to day with a sprained right knee) between the pipes. Brodeur's backup, Johan Hedberg, made 24 of his 31 saves in the first two periods Friday night, bailing out his lethargic teammates until they finally found their legs late in the third.
"Heady was outstanding tonight," Patrik Elias said. "He gave us a chance. And we found a way."
Thirty-four days earlier, Marleau's goal, which came off a rebound in front, would've been a backbreaker.
On Friday night, though, it wasn't.
Minutes later, Rolston took a Kovalchuk pass and blasted a point shot by Sharks netminder Antti Niemi, snapping the team's 0-for-12 slump on the power play over its last five games.
All of a sudden, the Devils were reinvigorated. Their belief had returned.
And that set the stage for their surging, $100 million sniper to play hero once again, one night after his overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs gave Lemaire his 600th victory.
|With game-winning goals on back-to-back nights, Ilya Kovalchuk has reason to celebrate.|
After Travis Zajac won a faceoff from the right circle, Kovalchuk snapped a seemingly harmless shot on goal that found the back of the net. It was Kovalchuk's 19th goal of the season and 17th point in his last 15 games.
"He's feeling it, obviously," Elias said. "The puck is going in for him. And even on a night when he doesn't feel great, he's still a dangerous guy. So he's got to shoot as much as possible. He's got a great shot, and when you're riding that way, the puck finds its way in and that's good for us."
Since a Jan. 9 victory over Tampa Bay, when Lemaire's system finally started to click with his players and they became a cohesive unit, the Devils are 4-0-2 in one-goal games and have not given up more than three goals in regulation. And their once-anemic offense has become efficient, averaging 3.2 goals.
"When you're winning, you usually feel good about your game," Kovalchuk said. "It doesn't matter to me who is scoring and getting points. It's a total team effort. We deserved the win and we deserved the points."
The key, the players said, sounds cliché: taking it one game at a time.
That cliché has certainly been the mantra of their coach.
"I think as an athlete, this is how you have to think," Lemaire said. "You don't look at the overall picture. You just try to do your job every day. And things will fall into place if you do your job.
"There's still a long way. We haven't moved [up much]. We're still near the bottom."
But if the Devils continue to play at this torrid pace, there's no reason they can't make a run at the a playoff berth.
"All along, we've been winning some that we've been coming back in," Rolston said. "That's huge. That shows character. That shows that if we're down, we're never out. We still feel we can win and we still feel like we have a lot of fight in us."
So it all comes down to this. Twenty-six games remaining. All must-wins. All with a playoff feel.
"As long as there's a chance," Hedberg said. "There's hope."
Hope is something the Devils didn't have on Jan. 8.
But they believe now. And that belief couldn't have come at a better time.
The impossible just might become possible.
MIke Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPN NewYork.com.