Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Devils set tone for second half of season

By Katie Strang
ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- Heading into the All-Star break, the New Jersey Devils faced a litany of questions. But one trumped all -- could they match up against the league's elite?

Tuesday night, in their first game back following the break, they finally provided that answer.

It was a lucky bounce that allowed the Devils to tie the game with less than a minute in regulation, but it was their resilience that boosted them 4-3 over the New York Rangers in their ninth shootout win of the season.

Knocking off the top team in the Eastern Conference, the Devils halted a three-game skid and took the first step in shedding the reputation of a team that consistently failed to stack up against the NHL's contenders. After dropping two games before the break to a pair of powerhouses in the East -- Philadelphia and Boston -- the Devils erased three one-goal leads to edge their Hudson River rivals in the teams' second meeting of the season.

"We're at that time of year where they're all big, but I think we really needed a win against, obviously, a really good team," coach Pete DeBoer said.

As part of the uber-competitive Atlantic Division, the Devils have a taxing road ahead that will challenge their grasp on one of eight coveted playoff spots in the East. They have four games remaining against the Rangers, three against the Flyers and three against the Penguins. They also have one more match against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, who lead the Northeast Division.

"We've got to just keep winning," DeBoer said. "You look at our schedule and we've got a tough road ahead here. We've got to beat good teams in order to get in."

A frenetic third period was capped by David Clarkson's game-tying goal with 47.6 seconds remaining, one he conceded was the result of a "lucky" bounce. Defenseman Andy Greene, playing his first game since Dec. 6, threw the puck down the ice and watched it carom off the partition to find Clarkson in front of the net. The late-game marker was Clarkson's 17th of the season, which tied his career high set in 2009.

"I guess it was a gift, we'd say," Clarkson said. "It just landed on my stick. It wasn't pretty, but I'll take it."

Following a scoreless overtime period, the Devils' prevailed in the shootout once again, as Ilya Kovalchuk beat backup Rangers goaltender Martin Biron five-hole for the lone goal. The Devils have dropped only two of 11 shootouts this year.

"We know we're going to score at least one or two," said Kovalchuk, who notched his 20th goal of the season to tie the game at 2 with 4:35 left in regulation. "I think we have a lot of talent and we know we can do it. We know our goalies are going to stop most of the shots."

With 33 games remaining, the Devils set a tone for the second half of the season. It was neither a decisive win nor a pretty one, but it came against one of the league's best.

And that's a feat they'll take some pride in conquering -- finally.

"We beat a really good hockey team and matched up with them really well," captain Zach Parise said. "That's a good start for us."