Devils need to climb big hill to avoid another bad year

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) With less than half the season to go, the New Jersey Devils are in danger of missing the playoffs for the third straight year and for the fourth time in five.

Coming out of the all-star break, the team's chances don't look good. New Jersey (17-22-8) is in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, 15 points out of a wildcard spot with 35 games to play. It has to jump over six teams in less than three months.

There are positives. The Devils will play 21 of 35 games at the Prudential Center, starting Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The team (5-5-1) also seems to be playing better since general manger and president Lou Lamoriello, and assistant coaches Adam Oates and Scott Stevens took over for the fired Pete DeBoer in late December.

''We've got to build off what we did before the break,'' said goaltender Cory Schneider, who has a .920 save percentage. ''I think it comes down to consistency, night in, night out. ... We have played against good teams and beat good teams, and we have also shown if we don't come ready to play teams will make us look really bad.''

The Devils' record (17-22-8) is not good although the team has had several injuries. Captain Bryce Salvador, forwards Mike Cammalleri (a team-high 15 goals), Patrik Elias and Martin Havlat all missed at least 10 games.

Center Adam Henrique, who has a team-high 26 points, said the only thing the Devils can do now is focus on the next game and not the big picture.

''If you look at it and say `Geez, that's a big mountain to climb' I think it's a little worse that way,'' he said. ''We had a good trip before the break and the guys are back, fresh and excited. We just have to chip away at it slowly.''

Defenseman Andy Greene said the changes instituted by the new triumvirate are working. While he would not point out a specific change, he said the players are just trying to be smarter on the ice, not get caught out of position late in shifts and play more cohesive hockey as five-man units.

''We have to string some wins together and get ourselves into the conversation,'' Greene said. ''There is a pride factor and you have to play for the guy next to you.''

Veteran Scott Gomez, who didn't get a contract coming out of training camp but has since signed and played 23 games, likes this team. He thinks they play hard every night.

''You can look at the points and say how that's it,'' Gomez said. ''I'm telling you, we'll make it interesting. The winning attitude is definitely in here.''

Lamoriello said the all-star break might have come at the wrong time for the Devils, who won two of three games on the West Coast.

''We can't worry about anybody other than ourselves,'' Lamoriello said.

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