|Devils come home after two road wins to face Blue Jackets|
What a difference a year makes.
Last season, the New Jersey Devils finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with 70 points. This season, they've matched that total in 59 games and look to add to their point total Tuesday night when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Prudential Center.
The Devils (31-20-8) already have three more victories than last season and hold a playoff spot in the East. They come into play riding a four-game winning streak, their sixth stretch of three consecutive wins or more this season.
"It's important that we have taken a step in how hard we have to play night in and night out," Devils coach John Hynes said. "I think the commitment level by our group right now, they understand what it is and they're willing to give it on a nightly basis. That's the step we were looking to take. We still have to continue that moving forward."
New Jersey swept two road games this past weekend, riding Eddie Lack's career-high 48 saves to a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday before beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime on Sunday. Those wins lifted the team's record in one-goal games to an impressive 16-4-8.
One constant in the Devils' success is the play of Taylor Hall, who leads the club with 24 goals and 62 points. He scored the overtime winner Sunday and brings an 18-game point streak into the game against Columbus. Since Jan. 2, Hall has 12 goals, 13 assists and 25 points.
"He's our All-Star, been our best player all season," Devils center Brian Boyle said.
Hynes said, "There's a drive inside him. I think it's apparent, but it's what you need as an individual like him or a team to really push through and be a factor late in the season."
Hall is not the only streaking Devils forward. Rookie Nico Hischier was named the league's First Star for the past week. He has goals in four straight games and points in five consecutive games.
Of course, the Blue Jackets (29-25-5) also know how quickly things can turn. Columbus is in a dogfight for a postseason berth -- currently one point out of eighth place in the East -- after cruising to a spot in the playoffs last season when the Blue Jackets finished with a franchise-record 108 points.
The Blue Jackets come to Newark off Sunday's 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and with only two wins in their last nine games.
A constant theme is an inability to score despite a plethora of scoring chances. The Blue Jackets had 36 shots or more in eight straight games -- with 49 or more in four of those games -- yet struggle mightily to score and win recently.
"We're generating scoring chances, we just have to find a way to win," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella told reporters after practice Monday.
One of Columbus' recent victories was a 6-1 thrashing of the Devils on Feb. 10 at Nationwide Arena. That was the Blue Jackets' best offensive output in two months and one shy of their season-best scoring effort.
The Blue Jackets are 10-9-3 within the Metropolitan Division this season and the Devils are a similar 10-7-1.
"We've been shooting ourselves in the foot a lot recently," Columbus forward Matt Calvert said after practice. "But we still have a chance to be in that playoff spot.
All the Metro teams are playing each other now, so someone's taking a step forward and someone's taking a step backward every night. Obviously, we have to be on the right end of that."