By Katie Carrera
Friday, March 18, 2011; 11:44 PM
NEWARK - Since the halfway point of the season, there has been no hotter team in the NHL than the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have risen from worst in the league to six points out of a playoff spot heading into Friday's game against the Washington Capitals, who know something about late-season rallies themselves.
After their 3-1 loss in Ottawa on Thursday night, the Devils are 23-4-2 since Jan. 9. They accumulated 48 points, putting themselves into the Eastern Conference playoff race and prompting talk of Coach Jacques Lemaire for coach of the year, considering the team was 9-22-2 when he took over in late December.
There's one big difference, though, between these Devils and the Capitals team that rallied from last place to reach the playoffs in the 2007-08 campaign after Bruce Boudreau took over as coach. Expectations were much higher for New Jersey coming into this season than they were for the Capitals back then.
"There's definitely a similarity," Boudreau said. "But for the Devils, they had a very good hockey club in place. We were trying to find our identity at the time. We didn't know if we had a good hockey club or not.
"The Devils have always had success and I think they found themselves in an anomaly at the beginning of the year. Now they're playing like the team that everybody thought they could be and that's a pretty good team."
New Jersey's surge in the standings has been helped by its two biggest stars regaining their form. In 29 games since Jan. 9, Ilya Kovalchuk has recorded 30 points, including 16 goals. Over that same span, goaltender Martin Brodeur has gone 15-3-1.
The Devils don't look at themselves as a team with delusions of achieving the impossible; to them, the playoffs remain a tangible goal.
"We don't feel that we're a team that's wishing for a miracle here," Brodeur told The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record this week. "We worked hard enough to get ourselves in a position where we have a decent chance of making it interesting for the teams that are in right now."
The last time the Capitals visited Prudential Center they faced a different New Jersey team, but it was one that jumped on and embarrassed Washington with a 5-0 defeat back on Nov. 22. The Capitals have undergone a partial identity transplant since then, though, allowing more than two goals only twice in the last 10 games and playing their way to the forefront of the Southeast Division thanks to a greater defensive posture.
Washington's comfort level in close games - 22 of the Capitals' 33 games since New Year's Day have been decided by one-goal and they're 13-4-5 in them - may in fact make it easier to face the Devils and their smothering defensive trap system. It at least shouldn't put any added pressure to minimize mistakes on the Capitals, who have grown accustomed to low-scoring games.
"I think just as a group we have to be patient and try to stay close together and stay in position," Jeff Schultz said of how to approach the Devils. "They like to hang on to the puck as long as they can and can take advantage of even the smallest mistakes. But as a group, if we stay calm and do what we've been doing well, for the most part it shouldn't be anything we're unfamiliar with."
The Capitals, who currently sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, know the Devils could be a first-round opponent when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in April.
"You want to go out and send a message that we're not to be taken lightly," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We want to make sure if we get them in the playoffs that they know it will be a tough series. I don't think what they're doing should be too much of a surprise though. They have a good team and it just took them a while to get going."
Capitals notes: Boudreau said John Erskine, who missed the previous two days with the flu, was feeling better but that he wasn't sure if the defenseman would face the Devils. . . .
Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed five games with a fractured thumb, could possibly return to the lineup against the Devils, but Boudreau said that decision would be made depending on how the team's top center felt Friday.