While the New Jersey Devils' current late-season surge doesn't approach their lengthy sprint to the finish in 2010-11, this one may end up putting them in the playoffs.
The Devils look to continue solidifying their grip on a postseason berth as they seek a sweep of their home-and-home series with the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night.
New Jersey (38-24-5) has won two in a row and three of four since a four-game skid, giving it a strong hold on one of the final playoff spots in the East. It's in sixth place and within striking distance of the fourth spot and home-ice advantage in the first round.
Despite going 28-10-3 in their final 41 games last season, the Devils couldn't overcome their poor first half and missed the postseason for the first time since 1996.
Last season's run was powered offensively in large part by Ilya Kovalchuk, and the star forward has been producing again this season. He recorded a hat trick in a 5-1 rout of the Islanders on Thursday, giving him 10 goals and 17 assists in his last 19 games - during which the Devils have gone 12-5-2.
Kovalchuk has four goals in his last two games after not scoring one in the previous nine, though he did record six assists in those contests.
"He's been playing really well,' said Martin Brodeur, who made 29 saves. 'The last game and today kind of makes up for the fact he hadn't been scoring much. The way he was carrying the puck, the way he was skating and shooting, that's what we need, for him to be as good as he can every night. He's been a force for us.'
Thursday's victory gave the Devils 38 wins and 81 points, matching last season's totals.
"I came here to score goals and make plays for my team to try and make my team win,' said Kovalchuk, who has 29 goals after recording his second hat trick in just over three weeks.
Kovalchuk helped New Jersey outscore New York 3-0 in the third period after the Islanders outshot the Devils 19-11 in the first two. Andy MacDonald scored New York's only goal.
"We had some guys, without mentioning names, you watch the game, that quite frankly were invisible,' said coach Jack Capuano, who team was trying to win three in a row for the first time since Jan. 17-21.
The Islanders (28-30-9) will be facing the Devils for the third straight time, having beaten them 1-0 at home Sunday behind 24 saves from Anders Nilsson. The season series is tied at 2-2-0, with each team winning once at home and on the road.
Evgeni Nabokov struggled Thursday, making 15 saves, and it's uncertain whether he'll play in his 600th career game Saturday.
Along with Kovalchuk, left wing Patrik Elias has been hot for the Devils with four goals and three assists in his last five games after recording one of each Thursday.
David Clarkson has a goal in each of his last two contests, while Zach Parise has recorded five goals and three assists in his last seven.
Brodeur has given up one goal in each of his previous three starts.
New York has gone 0 for 8 on the power play in its two consecutive games against New Jersey and 2 for its last 26 overall.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved