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Devils 3, Bruins 2

Bruins floored early

Devils’ 3-goal first period is too much to overcome

Boston’s Mark Stuart clips Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond instead of the puck on a slap shot. Boston’s Mark Stuart clips Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond instead of the puck on a slap shot. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 16, 2010

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NEWARK — In a season in which the Bruins have made most everything difficult, they layered on more frustration last night, suffering a 3-2 loss to the Devils that prevented them from gaining any ground in their fight to cling to the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

With 14 games remaining in the regular season, the Bruins have one game in hand over the Rangers, who sit but a lone point behind them in the standings. So while everyone has eyes, voodoo dolls, and pins pointed toward Thursday’s visit by the Penguins — and the dastardly Matt Cooke — the biggest date on the calendar right now really looms as Sunday afternoon’s visit by the Rangers.

“Right now,’’ noted coach Claude Julien, following his squad’s second straight loss, “we’re only judging ourselves on wins.’’

In other words, there’s little value in saying, as the Bruins could, that they hung tough with the talented Devils and even finished with a 36-28 shot lead, not to mention a slight edge in hits (20-19) and a 29-25 advantage at the faceoff circle. With the playoffs to start in less than a month, it’s only about posting victories and catching the last ferry to Survivor: Stanley Cup Edition.

The Devils, all but guaranteed home ice for the first round, salted this one away with three goals in a span of less than nine minutes in the first period. Rob Niedermayer, David Clarkson, and Zach Parise potted three behind Tim Thomas (yanked after the first period) on only 10 shots, and that was enough for the former residents of Exit 16W to post their 41st W of 2009-10.

“They scored that first one, and that set us back on our heels for a couple of shifts,’’ said Patrice Bergeron, whose goal with 1:03 left cut it to 3-2, allowing a brief but false glimmer of hope of sending it to OT. “Then they scored two quick ones and it’s 3-0. We just can’t sit back like that and allow it to happen.’’

The Devils, even with star Russian Ilya Kovalchuk a near no-show (one shot, one hit, one giveaway in 19:52 of ice time), did a much better job, especially in the first period, of creating net presence and pressure. Of their three goals, Clarkson’s was the most artful, and that was thanks to iconic goalie Martin Brodeur, who sent him on a breakaway by threading a long pass through the defensive end. Brodeur first gloved a long Zdeno Chara wrister, then dropped the puck and sent a tape-to-tape laser up to the blue line for Clarkson. He finished off with a snap backhander to the top left corner, stick side on Thomas, for the 2-0 lead at 17:23.

Only 45 seconds later, Parise surfaced from a crash of bodies around Thomas — including fellow Team USA pal Jamie Langenbrunner — and lifted in a doorstep backhander to make it 3-0. The Bruins are challenged most nights to score two goals, never mind cobble together four at The Rock. The night was essentially over with only 18:08 gone in the first period.

“Down, 3-0, to a team like that . . . it’s not easy,’’ said Julien, the loss of Marc Savard (to Cooke’s hit in Pittsburgh a week ago Sunday) very telling last night. “The first half of that first period we were OK, but then they scored first and we kind of collapsed.’’

In an attempt to get the furnace ignited, Julien pulled Thomas after the first and went with Tuukka Rask, who was a perfect 16 for 16 over his 40 minutes. And only 43 seconds into the second, the swap paid off, with Blake Wheeler tipping in a bad-angle shot from Mark Stuart, who uncharacteristically pinched down the left wing and fired off a wrister from near the goal line. Perhaps Julien will have to activate his defensemen more into the offensive action?

Brodeur allowed nothing the rest of the period, then didn’t give up another goal until Bergeron stepped in front of a Dennis Seidenberg one-time slapper to cut it to 3-2 at 18:57. The Bruins yanked Rask after a timeout, but time ran out with the Black and Gold pressing to find passing lanes and net presence around Brodeur — an ending much like how the whole night went.

Now it’s on to Raleigh, N.C., where tonight the Bruins will face the Hurricanes. The Bruins remain the lowest-scoring team (169 goals) in the NHL, which most nights means they aren’t going to win if the other side scores more than twice — a very tight margin in a season that grows tighter by the period.

“We have to minimize our mistakes,’’ mused Julien, “because it seems whenever we do make a mistake, it ends up in our net.’’

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