Devils’ 13-year playoff run in serious jeopardy

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Defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder were signed as free agents after Paul Martin decided to sign with Pittsburgh. And Brodeur was coming off a year in which he led the league in goals against average for the fifth time.

Things just haven’t worked out and it starts with Kovalchuk, who averaged more than 42 goals in his first eight seasons. He has five in a season where New Jersey has scored a league-low 53 times.

“Last year, we didn’t have that problem,” said Kovalchuk, who seemingly has been booed with every on-ice mistake at the Prudential Center. “This year, I don’t know. We have so many chances, crossbars, posts, miss the net, broken sticks. It’s just one of those starts where nothing goes our way. We have to stick with it.”

Kovalchuk isn’t the only problem. Zach Parise, who scored 38 goals last season, will be sidelined until February because of knee surgery, and Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac have been limited to three goals apiece.

This also has been an uncharacteristic season for the defense, which has surrendered 88 goals. A big problem for the back line has been moving the puck out of its own zone.

“You can’t go at it on your own to turn things around,” MacLean said. “It’s going to have to be turned around together. Everybody together has to turn it around.”

It starts with MacLean, a Devil through and through, who was an assistant coach here and is still the second all-time leading scorer with 701 points in 934 games. He is in a tough spot because of the injuries, and let’s face it, the Atlantic Division _ with the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers all playing well _ is not going to give the Devils many breaks.

If the Devils are going to change things, they have to stop the mistakes. In losing to Detroit 4-1 on Saturday, they made two mistakes in the opening 1:42 and fell behind 2-0.

“It seems like we’ll get an early break against us, and they’ll score and it’s kind of like: ‘Here we go again,’” veteran forward Brian Rolston said. “We have to be mentally tough in those situations, where we know we can come back. Let’s face it, we haven’t been successful this year and we have to get back to it.”

Most of the players have stopped looking at the standings. It can be depressing, and it also can cause them to lose focus on the things at hand.

For the Devils, that’s Phoenix on Wednesday night.

“We can’t doubt ourselves,” said Jason Arnott, who leads the team with nine goals. “We know it’s not in our favor right now. We can’t worry about that. We have to try to get as many points as we can every game from now until the end of the year, or else it is going to be an early year.”

In the midst of all the concern, the Devils, at least, had a few hours to relax on Sunday at their annual Christmas party. Families skated together, and children visited with Santa Claus.

Brodeur laughed when asked if he asked Santa for a few wins. But his children spoke with St. Nick.

“I didn’t tell them what to wish for,” Brodeur said with a smile that reminded many of years past, “but they have to live with their dad. So, they know what to wish for.”

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