Surprising New Jersey Devils looking to end playoff drought

NEWARK, N.J. — After missing the playoffs the previous three seasons, the New Jersey Devils shook up their organization.

They moved Ray Shero into the general manager’s job, made John Hynes the NHL’s youngest coach and made a couple of off-season moves that didn’t seem all that earthshattering.

Fast forward to the All-Star break, and the Devils (25-20-5) are threatening to end their playoff drought. They are on the cusp of a post-season berth heading into Tuesday night’s game at the Prudential Center against the rival New York Rangers.

It is the very beginning of a challenging February for New Jersey, which plays 13 games this month, including eight against teams above the Devils in the standings. Five of those eight games are against either the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals or the Rangers, who are 6-0-2 against the Devils dating to December 2013.

``It's sort of make-or-break time for us to make the playoffs this next stretch,'' said Devils forward Lee Stempniak, who came to camp on a tryout basis and now has 14 goals. ``It's in division games so those are points where you beat the teams you're chasing and you close the gap pretty quickly, and if you lose, it can run away from you pretty quickly. We know the importance of the games coming up.''

While the Devils have picked up their scoring slightly this season, the backbone of the team is All-Star goaltender Cory Schneider and a young defence mentored by veteran Andy Greene.

Schneider is 22-15-5 with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. New Jersey's total of 114 goals allowed is tied for the sixth fewest in the league, only 11 more than No. 1 Washington.

The Devils have scored just 112 goals, fourth fewest in the league, but they remain in contention.

It's something few expected looking at the Devils in training camp.

Forward Mike Cammalleri was coming off a 27-goal season, Schneider had emerged as a top goaltender and there was a lot of potential with the young defence that featured Adam Larsson and Damon Severson. But there also were a lot of questions that have been answered.

Kyle Palmieri, acquired in a trade with Anaheim, has a career-high 20 goals, six more than his previous best. Stempniak is considered one of the top free-agent additions, and defenceman David Schlemko, who signed in September, has been steady. Even pesky former Penguin Bobby Farmham scored his first seven NHL goals after being claimed on waivers.

``I think we looked in training camp and we knew we had the guys to do it,'' Palmieri said. ``I think early on it was us accepting how our team needed to play and how we need to compete to win games. We were able to use some of that momentum from early success and build our way into still being in the race. Thirty-two games is a long way and it starts with tomorrow night's game.''

Hynes is downplaying the big picture and telling his team to focus on the present.

``We're going to do what we have done all year long, which is try to get better every day, and make sure we are doing the right things,'' Hynes said.

If the Devils can keep that approach they can remain competitive every night.

``For us it's not a fluke,'' Stempniak said. ``We have gotten better each week of the season and I think we are right there. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It's certainly not a fluke and we have a lot of belief that we are a playoff team.''

NOTES: Cammalleri was placed on injured reserve with an upper body problem retroactive to Jan. 26. ... Forward Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher, and defenceman Seth Helgeson were recalled from Albany of the AHL. ...Defenceman John Moore (lower body) is day to day.