Towards the beginning of the 2009-10 season, most of the division winners were given the benefit of the doubt. Boston? They won 53 games last year, even though they traded away sniper Phil Kessel in the offseason to division-rival Toronto. They'll still win.
All of them could still win it. At least some experts thought so.
But what about the Devils? You know, that team from New Jersey, the one who won the Atlantic Division in 2009 and won a franchise-high 51 games while doing so? Not to mention that they did so while not having goaltender Martin Brodeur for about two-quarters of those wins.
Now I understand the Devils lost John Madden and Brian Gionta, two key players of the team's success over the past years. But those, to be fair, are spare parts that can be replaced easier than others. They aren't Marty Brodeurs, Patrik Eliases, or Zach Parises.
Not one expert picked the Devils to repeat as division champs this season. Most picked Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but I can understand the reasoning for that. Philadelphia added Chris Pronger on their already stacked blueline, while Pittsburgh was the last team standing at the end of the 2009 season.
But no love for the defending Atlantic champs? I was shocked. But then, I recalled, the Devils have rarely been hailed as a juggernaut team going into a season. Yet they always seem to come out of a season headed into the playoffs with home-ice, 100-plus points and 45-plus wins.
I didn't lose any sleep over the predictions of some hockey writers, but I did lose some after the Devils opened the season to consecutive losses against their two biggest rivals, the Flyers and the Rangers, at home.
How could that happen? Talk about two games right off the bat to fire up your locker room and fan base. But they came out looking terrible against Philadelphia, and not too much better against the Rangers. A team such as New Jersey, that might have more to prove than any other team in the NHL, needed to play with a little more grit, passion, and with more of a chip on their shoulder.
They came out with that passion last Thursday in Tampa Bay. But with just seconds remaining, it looked like the Devils were headed to an 0-3 start. Then a bouncing puck found Travis Zajac's stick, and the fortunes of the season quickly reversed. What could have snowballed into an out-of-control losing skid much too early in the season, was instead turned into a character building win. After winning in a shootout in Tampa Bay, the Devils rode that wave into two more wins in Sunrise and the Nation's capital, respectively.
Now, hopefully these three wins are not just an aberration, and the Devils are really starting to click. But almost more important than clicking, the Devils need to continue to show that grit and character that they have showed in the past three games that they weren't showing in the past two. This team has been counted out early, so it might not be enough to just play well.
This team needs to play well and want blood.