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.
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 the TD Banknorth Garden.
Boston was the NHL's hottest club during a 34-5-3 stretch from Nov. 1-Feb. 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 Jan. 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 point 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 the TD Banknorth Garden this season. But the Devils won 4-3 in overtime there on Jan. 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.