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Hartnett: Devils' Improved Scoring Depth Makes Them Playoff Dark Horses

'Devils In The Details'
By Sean Hartnett
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The Devils have nearly punched their playoff ticket. They currently sit in 6th place. Yet, they are equal on points with the 2nd place Boston Bruins, a team once considered the strongest in the Eastern Conference.

Standings can obscure how talented a lower seeded team can be. Whether the Devils finish 5th,6th or anywhere else in the East, they're the kind of team that no opponent wants to face in the first round.

All season, I've viewed the Devils as a team whose greatest strengths are their forechecking, physical strength and ability to win battles in the corners. That might not be the case anymore, as the Devils displayed well-balanced scoring during Thursday's 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I thought our ability to roll four lines and the contribution of our fourth line tonight was great. I thought they really gave us some momentum in the second period when we needed it and some big minutes," head coach Peter DeBoer stated post-game.

Of course, no one expects the Devils to score six goals every night. Thursday was a rare occasion but if they can find more frequent contributions from all four lines, New Jersey will be a very tough team to handle come playoff time.

DeBoer expressed confidence in his team's ability to find the net more frequently. "I feel we have a team that can score, so I'm hoping this leads to some consistent goals," he said.

Captain Zach Parise spoke about the difference shown on Thursday night. "It definitely was nice to get a little explosion of offense there. It's been a while since we put up six. It felt good. I thought we did a good job on the forecheck. We finished, we capitalized tonight," Parise explained.

3.29.12 Postgame: Zach Parise by New Jersey Devils PR on YouTube

Ilya Kovalchuk's tying goal at 13:26 in the second period gave the Devils a surge of momentum. From that point on, the Devils played more confidently and didn't take their foot off the gas. They continued to pressure the Lightning through the remainder of the game. Defenseman Andy Greene spoke about Kovalchuk's goal.

"At the time it was obviously a big goal. It swung momentum back to us and I think we did a pretty good job after that at securing the puck," he said.

According to Greene and fellow blueliner Bryce Salvador, there's room for improvement but the Devils have a strong idea of their identity as the playoffs near.

"Once we got our forecheck established, we started getting rewarded. That was the main thing. Once we start doing that, our forwards are tough to play against. The last half of the game was a big difference. It's important that we learn from that and see the success," Salvador stated.

"As the game went on, we were getting a little bit stronger and better. There were some moments here and there, trading chances with them. You can't do that with that kind of team. We just need to tighten up a few areas. We have to build on it and continue to get stronger as the game goes on and control pucks at both bluelines, wear teams down on our forecheck and cycle," Greene revealed.

The Devils are showing that they can play win in different ways and that's certainly an encouraging sign. They're a lot more offensively-deep than their reputation suggests. The fact that David Clarkson has scored 29 goals speaks for how evenly-distributed their scoring depth is.

I asked coach DeBoer about Clarkson's impact. "Clarky has been a big part of our success this year. He's on the verge of 30 goals. I think he had a bit of a weight lifted. He hadn't scored in a few games but for me, it's not the goals, it's the other stuff he does for us," DeBoer responded.

3.29.12 Postgame: Peter DeBoer by New Jersey Devils PR on YouTube

Clarkson spoke about the possibility of reaching the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career.   "It's a great accomplishment to get to, but at the end of the day, us winning is more importnat than anything. If we keep winning games, I'm happy," he mentioned.

Should DeBoer continue with Travis Zajac on the first line and keep Adam Henrique on the third line, a third line of Ponikarovsky-Henrique-Clarkson proves just how deep the Devils are. Having three lines hot going into the playoffs makes the Devils a very difficult match-up.

How impressive is the Devils' scoring depth and are they a playoff dark horse? Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.

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