Last in the NHL, the New Jersey Devils face a daunting task in trying to reach the playoffs for the 14th straight year.
They look to take the first of many small steps Tuesday night when they host the Ottawa Senators.
New Jersey has not missed the postseason since 1996, when it was eliminated on the season's final day by Ottawa and denied an opportunity to defend its Stanley Cup title.
This season, a sputtering offense and inconsistent goaltending by NHL all-time wins leader Martin Brodeur have left the Devils (16-30-3) trailing the Atlanta Thrashers by a staggering 22 points for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot with 33 games remaining.
Since the 1993-94 season, the 2008-09 St. Louis Blues are the only team to reach the playoffs from last place in a conference at the All-Star break, and they only had to overcome a nine-point gap.
Coach Jacques Lemaire's team, though, showed some signs of cohesion the final two weeks before the All-Star break by outscoring opponents 29-16 and going 6-1-1. The Devils did not allow more than three goals in any game during that run, and All-Star Patrik Elias had five goals and five assists.
"It's fun to play with him," linemate Brian Rolston told the Devils' official website. "Patrik's a guy that makes his linemates better, plain and simple. Last year when I played with him, I was really productive."
Rolston was also productive in the last eight games, compiling four goals and seven assists, while Ilya Kovalchuk showed signs of ending his season-long funk by scoring five times.
The 38-year-old Brodeur, on pace for career worsts with a record of 10-19-2 and a 2.84 goals-against average, is 5-1-1 with a 2.13 GAA in his last seven starts. He is 34-20 with six shutouts and four ties versus the Senators but has dropped his last two games against them.
Ottawa (17-25-8) appears to be on a similar track with New Jersey in missing the playoffs, though it will be the second time in three years for the Senators. Unlike the Devils, Ottawa staggered into the mid-season break by going 1-6-3 and dropped into last place in the Northeast Division.
The Senators did salvage a point last Tuesday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Buffalo, and defenseman Sergei Gonchar ended the team's eight-game drought without a power-play goal with the tying score in the third period.
"We've just got to keep pushing," captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "It's still a matter of us not scoring enough to really make it easier on ourselves and we're going to have to find a way to put more pucks in the net or it's going to be the same thing, a lot of tight games or we'll be behind."
Ottawa is hoping the change of venue may change some fortunes. The Senators have lost seven straight at home and goaltender Brian Elliott is 0-7-4 since beating Pittsburgh on Dec. 26.
The Senators won the only meeting between these teams this season 3-2 on Dec. 10 as All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson had a goal and an assist. Kovalchuk assisted on both goals for New Jersey, which went 2 for 3 with the man advantage.
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