NEWARK - After opening the season with points in 11 of 12 games and the best record in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils appeared ready to coast into the playoffs.
With 12 games to play in the lockout-shortened, 48-game season, the defending Eastern Conference champions are barely hanging on to their postseason ticket. They have slipped to seventh in the conference after a four-game losing streak and lead the rival Rangers and Islanders by a mere two points.
Even more concerning is that star forward Ilya Kovalchuk is going to miss a few more weeks after hurting his shoulder March 23, and won't be back until late.
Barring a trade by president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, the Devils are going to have to make do with their current roster.
"There's no reason to look back now," said center Adam Henrique, the playoff hero last year in the run to the Stanley Cup finals. "Obviously there's the bounces here and there and you can look at, but we've got to look ahead here. There's only 12 games left. We know that we can win. We're in a good spot. We're playing teams ahead of us and that we can catch. Twelve games is not a lot, so we're just going to leave everything out there and go from there, keep moving forward."
Devils coach Pete DeBoer kept his team off the ice on Tuesday and held a meeting. He told the team the final 12 games were an opportunity to succeed.
"We're in a playoff spot," DeBoer said. "We control our own destiny and we've got to take care of business and get some wins."
The Devils were in danger of missing the playoffs last season and turned it on down the stretch. Not only did they get into the postseason, they played their best hockey and came within a couple of games of winning their fourth Stanley Cup.
Devils center Stephen Gionta said having many of the same players back from last season is comforting.
"The guys in this room know what it takes to get into the playoffs and be successful," Gionta said. "It's sticking to the game plan and that's the biggest thing now."
Despite losing four in a row, the streak has not been a complete loss. The first three defeats came either in overtime or a shootout, so New Jersey got three out of a possible eight points.
It could have been a lot better, too.
In losses to Tampa Bay and Florida on Friday and Saturday, New Jersey squandered leads in the final minute of regulation and lost. It just as easily could have been 2-1-1 in the last four games, which would have put them four points up on the Rangers and Islanders.
"We wouldn't be talking about it if we finished the games we had in our hands there," veteran Patrik Elias said. "So, we're doing something right. We were in all the game except maybe first period last game and, obviously, with the home stretch, you have to stay positive. We know what we're supposed to fix and that's to find a way to win. It's not easy, but there's a fine line between that and we've seen the way it happened to us the last week."
Veteran backup goaltender Johan Hedberg said everyone understands the importance of every game, so it has to be treated like a playoff game.
"We have to have fun with it and try to get better every day," Hedberg said. "The one thing about our team is we're a consistent team and we have been playing consistently. You stick to that and good things happen."