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.