By Mike Lipka
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
"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.