Battered, bruised New Jersey regroups to face Washington


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It's that time of the year when the legs of Devils veteran are tired, injured and aching.

Scott Stevens, the key for the defense, is out indefinitely with a strained knee. He has not started skating and is unlikely to join the Devils on this five-game trip.

Center Peter Stastny is getting a rest that seems badly needed, if his recent statistics are an indication. "We talked it over," said coach Tom McVie, "and we decided it was for the best. I want everybody contributing in the playoffs."

Others are in games when they probably should not be. Viacheslav Fetisov is playing on a broken foot; Claude Lemieux has an assortment of injuries that seem to accompany his go-for-broke style, and Stephane Richer has a bad knee and groin.

However, McVie is a believer that the older players must work even harder to remain effective, and he still is trying to finish as high as possible. A game against second-place Washington tonight could be pivotal in the standings.

The recent return of Zdeno Ciger, who had been missing since training camp, helped fill a void left by a season-ending injury to Dave Barr. And the gang from Utica has helped, too.

Myles O'Connor, who came up from Utica in late February, has tried to fill in for the hurting defensemen. He managed to get McVie's attention against the Islanders by consistently getting the puck out to his forwards.

Russian Alexander Semak arrived on Feb. 28 after returning to Utica for conditioning and scored two goals in a crucial 5-4 victory over the Rangers on Wednesday night. Jarrod Skalde's first NHL goal was a game-winner.

Skalde had dreamed often of what that goal would be like and imagined himself taking the puck from end to end, eluding defenders all the way, then walking in on the goalie and lofting the puck into the net.

"But this was the next best thing," he admitted. "It was dramatic enough, and it had to be a great thrill coming at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers and Mark Messier."

Tom Chorske and Doug Brown made it possible. Chorske charged down the ice and Ranger goalie Mike Richter came out to meet him and lost his stick. The puck was retrieved by Brown, who centered it between his legs from a sprawled position for Skalde's shot.

"I'm just glad to be getting the chance to play," said Skalde, who has been up with the Devils and down in Utica several times in recent weeks. "There are some guys getting itchy to be here, like I am. We've been waiting for the call since mid-season."

That puck will be the first in Skalde's NHL collection. It was retrieved by Brown and will be mounted.

The Devils voted unanimously to support a strike that could wipe out the playoffs if no collective bargaining agreement is reached. The Devils are a team that believes its chances would be good in the playoffs, but captain Bruce Driver said that did not weigh in the team's decision. ... Trade speculation continues to run high. Talks between the Devils and Buffalo have been brewing all season. The Sabres have been interested in goalie Sean Burke and defenseman Eric Weinrich, and the Devils have been looking at center Dale Hawerchuk and several other Sabres. The trading deadline is Tuesday afternoon.

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