Penguins Notebook: Devils making major rebound
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NEWARK, N.J. -- A lot of people were ready to write off New Jersey's season Jan. 8 after a 2-1 loss against Philadelphia dropped its record to 10-29-2.
After all, why would anyone have waited that long to do it? Surely, most folks who follow the NHL realized that the Devils should have been given up for dead weeks before that.
By the time Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean as coach Dec. 23, the Devils were plunging through the nine concentric circles of hockey's netherworld, and there was no reason to believe they were viable candidates for redemption.
The gap separating them from the Eastern Conference playoff field was too great. Goalie Martin Brodeur was too old. Left winger Ilya Kovalchuk was too focused on offense to thrive in a defense-oriented system.
But the Devils, who will face the Penguins tonight at the Prudential Center, have been staging one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent NHL history.
And while they are hardly a lock to get into the playoffs -- New Jersey sat 12th in the Eastern Conference, nine points behind eighth-place Carolina going into games Thursday night -- you won't find many people willing to guarantee that New Jersey is doomed to sit out the postseason, either.
The Devils are on an 18-2-2 rampage and have taken 21 of a possible 22 points out of their past 11 games at home.
Their surge includes a 2-0 victory Jan. 20 against the Penguins.
"They need a lot of good things to happen [to get into the playoffs]," Penguins goalie Brent Johnson said Thursday. "They need to keep winning. But they've been playing exceptional hockey.
"They're a good squad. No one ever said they weren't."
Well, the numbers did for much of the season, but that's not the case anymore.
"It's almost a tale of two seasons for them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "But am I surprised to see them playing really good hockey and playing New Jersey Devils' style and having success? No."
Left winger Chris Kunitz, who has missed the past 11 games because of an unspecified injury, went through another full practice Thursday.
Bylsma reiterated that he's "hopeful" Kunitz will be able to play this weekend -- the Penguins are in Boston Saturday night -- but was noncommittal about whether that would happen tonight.
Some decidedly mixed signals during the workout at the Devils' practice facility adjacent to the Prudential Center did not clarify matters, either.
At one point early in the session, Kunitz and suspended right winger Eric Godard formed a fourth defensive pairing for a drill, which suggested Kunitz wouldn't be playing against the Devils.
Later, Kunitz was involved in some power-play work, which could be construed as evidence he's poised to return.
Being without forwards Eric Tangradi and Nick Johnson, both of whom have concussions, likely doesn't constitute a major setback for the Penguins.
At least not now that they are getting some other injured players back.
It is one, however, for their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.
Neither of those players will be able to play for the Baby Penguins in the American Hockey League playoffs because both were on the major-league roster when the NHL trade deadline passed Monday.
Although Wilkes-Barre is a runaway leader in the AHL's overall standings, losing Tangradi and Johnson on a technicality and Dustin Jeffrey on what might well be a permanent promotion to the NHL means the Baby Penguins will be without three key scorers when the Calder Cup playoffs arrive.
The game March 20 against the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center will begin at 12:38 p.m. and be televised nationally by NBC.
First Published March 4, 2011 12:00 am