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Flyers know Devils playing better under Lemaire

THE FLYERS' plan to avoid looking past the Devils today to tomorrow's Stanley Cup final rematch in Chicago is simple:

Jacques Lemaire and the Devils visit the Wells Fargo Center Saturday afternoon to play the Flyers. (AP file photo)
Jacques Lemaire and the Devils visit the Wells Fargo Center Saturday afternoon to play the Flyers. (AP file photo)Read more

THE FLYERS' plan to avoid looking past the Devils today to tomorrow's Stanley Cup final rematch in Chicago is simple:

Remember how close they came to losing to the Devils on Jan. 8, when the Devils began their resurgence.

It came as the Devils were marching toward a fourth straight loss, their second in 2 days to the Flyers and their seventh in the eight games since Jacques Lemaire took over as coach for John MacLean.

It happened with the Flyers holding a 2-0 lead at the first intermission.

But Flyers coach Peter Laviolette saw it coming.

There was a pep in the Devils' step that wasn't there 2 nights before. Laviolette said as much during the first break:

"I said that to the coaches and players after that first period: 'Something's changed here. I don't know what it is. I'm not in their locker room. I'm not part of their organization. But something's changed.' "

The Flyers held a 2-0 lead at that moment, and would proceed to win, 2-1. It appeared as if the Flyers jumped out quickly and cruised.

Not so.

"They could have won that game. Our guys fought like hell in that game, against a very, very competitive team. They came into our building and played a terrific hockey game," Laviolette said. "Something changed between those two games."

Well, the goalies changed. Johan Hedberg gave up four goals in the last 25 minutes of the first game, on Jan. 6, then surrendered two more in the first 16 minutes of the first period Jan. 8. Martin Brodeur replaced him and shut out the Flyers the rest of the way. Brodeur has remained the Devils' starter.

Also, the trade of captain Jamie Langenbrunner to Dallas was completed. Langenbrunner was a mysterious, healthy scratch Jan. 6. His trade was announced the next day.

Coincidence or not, the Devils, with an NHL-low 31 points, have been different.

Since Jan. 8, the Devils are 4-0-1 with two wins against the Lightning, a tie at Florida, a drubbing of the Islanders and a shutout against the Penguins, who played without stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"Right now, the New Jersey Devils are not the same team they were 20 games ago," Laviolette said.

He should know. It was his seventh-seeded Flyers who chased the second-seeded Devils out of the playoffs last season in five games, which chased Lemaire into quitting after that first-round series.

Lemaire is back, Langenbrunner is gone, the team is playing crisply.

So what if the Flyers are 12-2-1 against them dating to the beginning of last season. So what if the Flyers are the best team in the NHL, on top of the league for the first time this late in the season since they ended the 1984-85 campaign on top.

"New Jersey is playing well. We're not going to face the same team we faced before. We need to bring our 'A' game if we want to get out with two points," forward Claude Giroux said.

That said, every man in the room knows that the Blackhawks await.

"It will be a big game for us," Giroux acknowledged. "We want to get back at them a little bit. And they want to prove something, too."

The Blackhawks, who beat the Flyers in six games to win the Cup, are seventh in the Western Conference with 54 points. They play today at Detroit, their first of three games in 4 days. The Flyers will be playing their third in 4 days and their second in a row.

"Really, playing two games in less that 24 hours - there's really not a lot of time for buildup," goalie Brian Boucher said. "It's really just another game."

So is today's.

Mr. Tough Guy

Slight and talented, Claude Giroux being involved in a fight always is news, especially when he figured he has to fight to prove his manhood.

Giroux checked Ottawa's Jesse Winchester in the third period as the Flyers ran away with the 6-2 win. Giroux quickly was engulfed by Chris Neil while a fight sprang up between skilled, if larger, teammate Jeff Carter and Winchester.

On his next shift, Giroux, who had not fought this season, accommodated Nick Foligno, who outweighs him by about 30 pounds. He did not embarrass himself - but, yesterday, he was the subject of a rampant text-messaging campaign by his buddies.

"I started the whole thing, I hit Winchester, and Cartsy had to fight," Giroux said, to the delight of his admiring, if teasing, friends. "All my buddies texted me."

Were they proud? Did they rib him?

"A little bit of both, maybe," Giroux said.

He easily could have skated away from Foligno, who lauded Giroux for fighting.

"I kind of felt like I had to step up for me," Giroux said. "I don't want anybody to step up for me."

Teammate Jody Shelley, meanwhile, punished Neil for pouncing on Giroux. Neil is about 35 pounds heavier than Giroux.

Slap shots

Chris Pronger (foot) came out of his first game since Dec. 15 without complication, Peter Laviolette said . . . Goalie Brian Boucher is 2-0-1 with four goals allowed in three games against the Devils this season, which, Laviolette said, will factor in to whether he or Sergei Bobrovsky starts today. *