Devils-Panthers Preview

The New Jersey Devils have the inside track for the Atlantic
Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference as they
get ready to pursue a fourth Stanley Cup.

Perhaps more importantly, they have one of the best goaltenders
of all time in postseason form.

Martin Brodeur will go for his third consecutive shutout as New
Jersey plays its final road game Thursday night against the Florida
Panthers.

The Devils’ back-to-back wins to begin this trip have put them
two points ahead of Pittsburgh and in position for a fourth
division title in five seasons.

New Jersey (46-26-7) could clinch the division as early as
Thursday with a win and a Pittsburgh regulation loss to the New
York Islanders.

The Devils are one point ahead of Northeast Division champion
Buffalo in the race for second place in the East, which could
determine home-ice advantage in a possible second-round series.

Brodeur has certainly helped, earning his 600th win with 19
saves in a 3-0 victory at Atlanta on Tuesday night.

“The big one was 552,” Brodeur said, referring to the win that
gave him the NHL record. “Now everything is gravy.”

He also blanked Carolina with 26 stops in a 4-0 win Saturday.
Although Brodeur is also the NHL career leader with 110 shutouts,
he has not notched three in a row since March 27-April 4, 1997.

Brodeur may have a chance considering he made 22 saves in a 2-0
win over Florida on Jan. 20, improving to 34-13-0 with seven ties,
six shutouts and a 1.98 goals-against average versus the
Panthers.

The Devils may also be dangerous in the playoffs thanks to a
potent offense that was bolstered by the Feb. 4 acquisition of Ilya
Kovalchuk from the Thrashers.

Although Kovalchuk was held without a point or shot on goal in
his return to Atlanta on Tuesday, he has four goals, seven assists
and a plus-five rating in his last eight games.

“Back-to-back shutouts, that’s what we’re looking for,”
Kovalchuk told the Devils’ official Web site. “We want to keep the
game very simple, but we’ve got a lot of talented guys who can
score goals, so we’ve got no problem with that. But we have to play
strong in our end.”

That may not be especially difficult against a Florida club that
has scored the third-fewest goals in the league and been held to
two or fewer scores in seven straight games, going 1-5-1.

The Panthers (31-36-12) haven’t reached the postseason since
2000, giving them the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

After Tomas Vokoun extended his personal losing streak to seven
by allowing five goals on 28 shots in a 5-2 defeat to Ottawa on
Tuesday night, New Jersey may face former teammate Scott
Clemmensen.

Clemmensen, who won 25 games for the Devils while filling in for
Brodeur last season, is 3-1-1 with a 1.81 GAA in his last five
starts. He made 26 saves in a 4-2 win at New Jersey on Dec. 11.