By Max Herman
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You don’t have to go deep into the Devils’ locker room to find a guy who is willing to admit that through the first half of the 2010-2011 schedule, the team produced some pretty embarrassing results.
Yet despite their 10-29-2 record at the season’s midway point, the Devils have earned 9 out of a possible 10 points in the five games since.
They’ve gone 4-0-1 in that stretch, with the only blemish coming in an overtime loss on the road against the Panthers. That game ended on a Dmitry Kulikov goal that was not only Florida’s first shot of the overtime frame, it was their first shot in over 17 minutes of game time. So it’s not as if it came without a solid defensive effort.
And that has been the message emanating from new-ish head coach Jacques Lemaire. Since replacing John MacLean, he has made it clear that irresponsible defensive play will not be tolerated. It’s the reason rookie Mattias Tedenby was scratched for five straight games despite displaying impressive offensive ability in the infancy of his NHL career.
More specifically, Lemaire has the team playing in a system which demands that they support each other on the ice much better. In speaking with Brian Rolston after the win over the Penguins on Thursday night, I noted that the team seemed to be having a much easier time breaking out of their own zone and transitioning from defense to offense.
“It’s huge,” Rolston said. “The biggest change in our game is we’re not giving teams time down in the corner. Before, one guy was in on the puck and then we’d have one defenseman [helping]. [Now] we’ve got everybody going to support…We’re coming out of our zone and everybody’s buying in…I think it’s the number one most important thing in our game.”
The results have included fewer giveaways inside their own blue line, speed through the neutral zone in the transition game, and the occasional odd-man rush that develops when the defense creates turnovers. That’s right! The Devils create turnovers again!
But defense hasn’t been the only reason the Devils are surging. How does 20 goals in 5 games sound to ya? Oh wait, I already know how it sounds to some of you. They had to wait ’til freakin’ January to start figuring this stuff out?!?! Now that’s a fair point disgruntled Devil fans. But loosen up and try to enjoy this while you can.
After all, it’s not like the Devils have beaten a bunch of cupcakes in this stretch. Three of the four victories have come against the Penguins and Lightning (twice). Those two clubs represent the teams with the second and third-highest point totals in the Eastern Conference respectively. And yes the Pens were without the services of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but that doesn’t mean the NHL will be asking the Devils to give the points back.
Perhaps the final piece to this winning formula has been the revitalized play of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur. Marty has looked a lot more like Marty lately, posting a 2.00 GAA and a .930 save percentage during this five-game stretch.
His rebound control has been vastly improved and, much like many of his teammates, he just looks a lot more comfortable in his own skin. Losing as consistently as the Devils have this year can really mess with a guy’s head. Even a guy who has mastered the art of winning hockey games better than any goalie in history.
Marty is happy to be finding his groove again. “It’s nice. That’s what I expected from myself, to be successful like that,” he said after shutting out Pittsburgh. “It has been a hard season. Hopefully we’ve turned the page and we’re moving on.”
If you’re looking for a thesis out of this, I think it’s this: In no sport does momentum and team confidence play a bigger role than it does in hockey. Not to diminish its value in other sports, but every team goes through stretches where, for better or worse, those who follow the team closely look at the product on the ice and ask themselves, who the hell are these guys?
In the Devils’ case, if you were to have their last five games as your only sample of this season, you might not recognize New Jersey as the worst team in the NHL. But that is in fact what the standings say they are. It’s been a night-and-day transformation, but the question of whether or not it will sustain still remains.
Although playoff hopes are extremely minute, the Devils still have the next two and a half months to show that they will not be defined by their midseason record. And maybe…just maybe, the second half of the year will be equally as good as the first half was bad. In the mean time, if you’re a fan, enjoy riding this wave for now. Just don’t ride it too high in case that wave ends up crashing into the pier.
Max’s Three Stars Of The Week:
Third Star: D Andy Greene
As long as we’re talking about the improved defense the Devils have played lately, let’s talk about the defenseman that’s logged the most ice time in this five-game stretch. During that span, Greene is a +5 and also has 4 assists. Those assists provide strong evidence that he has been one of the guys most responsible for the team’s improvement in moving the puck out of their defensive zone.
Second Star: LW Brian Rolston
After scoring 2 goals in his first 25 games, Rollie has now scored twice in his last four. Throw in the 4 assists and that gives him a total of 6 points in his last 5 games with a +6 rating. The Devils don’t necessarily rely on Brian for his scoring touch anymore, but when his line produces offense, it makes the Devils a much deeper team. Rolston has shown to be dangerous on one-timers when he gets a decent look at the net.
First Star: G Martin Brodeur
Yes, the Devils did average four goals per game in the five games we’re speaking of, but as far as I’m concerned it was the rebirth of Brodeur’s confidence that keyed this run. I gave you the numbers earlier, but more important than any stat, it is clear that when Marty plays well, the rest of the team feeds off of that. And what team wouldn’t? If you had one of the world’s best doing what he does and making it look easy, you’d feel a lot better about your team’s chances of winning too.
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