Devils visit Bruins in battle of top two in East

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By Mike Lipka

Stats Writer

New Jersey (47-21-3) at Boston (45-17-10), 3:00 p.m. EDT

BOSTON (AP) -- The Boston Bruins have held the top spot in the

Eastern Conference for more than three months, but as they

struggle to regain their confidence and snap out of a lengthy

funk, they don't have the feel of Stanley Cup Finals favorites.

Instead, that title may belong to the New Jersey Devils.

Martin Brodeur and the red-hot Devils can trim their deficit

behind Boston to one point and win the season series against the

Bruins with a victory Sunday afternoon at TD Banknorth Garden.

Boston was the NHL's hottest club during a 34-5-3 stretch from

November 1-February 5, opening a comfortable lead atop the East

as the team emerged around a group of talented young forwards.

But the Bruins (45-17-10) have lost their momentum and stumbled

to a 6-9-4 mark in the last six weeks. With New Jersey and

Washington in close pursuit, they're also in danger of shedding

the top spot in the conference for the first time since early

December.

"Whether we're on the road or at home, teams are coming up

against us and it's almost like they've got the upper hand

already," Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said, "because they're the

more confident team."

The Devils (47-21-3) feel especially good about themselves, with

the victories piling up thanks in part to the return of Brodeur.

The four-time Vezina Trophy winner is 9-1-0 with a 1.75

goals-against average since his four-month absence following

elbow surgery, breaking Patrick Roy's all-time wins record in

the process. He has helped extend New Jersey's two-month surge,

with the team now 23-6-0 since January 13.

After making 35 saves in the Devils' 4-0 win over Minnesota on

Friday night, Brodeur is closing in on another record, as his

101 shutouts are two behind Terry Sawchuk for the most all-time.

"It becomes so standard that it's hard to be amazed," New Jersey

right wing Brian Gionta said. "You see it day in and day out,

just how good he is and how hard he works. Whether it's

practice or warmups, he's battling for rebounds, trying to stop

it. He's always trying to not let you score."

The Devils haven't had many problems scoring on other goalies

lately, tallying three or more goals in 10 of their last 11

contests. Patrik Elias notched his first 30-goal season since

2003-04 by scoring twice against the Wild, while Zach Parise

added a pair of assists to increase his team-leading points

total to 87.

The Bruins' once-powerful attack, meanwhile, has stalled, with

production tailing off from youngsters Phil Kessel and David

Krejci and the team's power play running out of steam.

Boston is converting 15.2 percent on the man advantage in the

last 24 games after ranking third in the NHL at 25.0 percent at

the All-Star break. The unit was 0-for-4 in a 3-2 overtime loss

at home to Los Angeles on Thursday night.

"We're going to have to start outworking other teams from start

to finish, like we were earlier in the season," Bruins coach

Claude Julien said, "and your best players are going to have to

find their game and be the best they can be in order for us to

get out of it."

Thursday's loss ended a three-game home winning streak for

Boston, which is still 24-6-6 at TD Banknorth Garden this

season. But the Devils won, 4-3, in overtime there on January

29, part of their 2-1-0 mark in the season series.

They've done that entirely without Brodeur, who has won four

straight and seven of eight against the Bruins.

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