Speak Of The New Jersey Devils: The Top Five Reasons Behind Their Resurgence
It seems like a broken record of late. The talk of the Eastern Conference has been the surging New Jersey Devils, who are on an amazing streak, winning their last seven overall, and posting a 15-1-2 record in their last eighteen games.
What are the reasons behind the resurgence? Let's take a look at some of the reasons for the Devils turnaround, and try to take a stab at the chance of the Devils climbing all the way into a playoff spot, something that would be unprecedented in recent times, not only in just the National Hockey League, but perhaps all of the major professional sports.
#5 The Effectiveness Of The REZ Line
Just think about the season thus far for Brian Rolston, and how it has gone from the basement to the penthouse in such a short amount of time. It was not long ago, that the Devils tried their best to give Brian Rolston away.
He was placed on waivers December 14th, and December 28th, before being placed on re-entry waivers December 30th. All other twenty-nine teams in the NHL passed on Rolston, and with the way his game has picked up, there may be a few GMs that regret passing on the re-entry waivers. In his last 21 games, Rolston has put up eight goals and nine assists for 17 points, while having a plus-minus of plus-11, and three game-winning goals.
In sports, sometimes it's opportunity and timing that trumps anything. One might say that is the case with Dainius Zubrus, who has excelled since being paired with Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston. In the same period since Rolston was placed on re-entry waivers, Zubrus has seen his game take off as well, scoring nine goals and posting two assists for 11 points in 22 games, along with a plus-13 and two game-winning goals during that time. Both players have taken full advantage of the opportunity for additional ice time that was presented to them when Jamie Langenbrunner was dealt away to Dallas on January 7th.
Patrik Elias has been the most consistent offensive force the Devils have had all season, but even his game has improved of late too thanks to the games of his teammates being picked up around him. In the last 23 games, Elias has scored seven goals, added 15 assists, for 22 points, and has a plus-17 rating along with three game-winning goals.
Not only has the line scored key goals, it's played great defense too, matching up against many of the top lines of other teams during the big stretch of games. All three players play good solid two-way games and complement each other well in the offensive end.
Zubrus is the grinder, who works real well along the boards. Elias is the playmaker and occasional sniper, while Rolston has the booming shot. Ideally, Zubrus frees up the puck for Elias, who finds Rolston open for a one-time shot that finds the back of the net.
In the last 23 games, this line has combined for 24 goals, 26 assists, and a plus-41 rating, all while scoring eight game-winning goals. It's not hard to see how the REZ line has helped to spearhead the Devils' resurgence.
#4 A Defense Working Great Together and Mark Fayne Breaking Out
The New Jersey Devils gave up 129 goals against in the first half of the season, an average of 3.15 goals per game, and that does not take into account any goals generated in the shootout. In the last 18 games, the Devils have yielded just 31 goals, an average of just 1.72 goals against per game.
And while you can look at the obvious answers of Jacques Lemaire's return, or the firing of John MacLean as the easy reasons, it definitely goes deeper than that. For one thing, you've had a little bit more consistency back there, in terms of the guys in the lineup each night. The current group of six defenseman (Anton Volchenkov, Colin White, Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, Mark Fayne and Anssi Salmela) have built some good teamwork during this streak and work together real well.
Volchenkov has been a rock, showing off his ability to both block shots and hit people. Colin White has been a steady presence on the backline, adding some toughness and helping to shut down opponents. Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder have both done a complete reversal of their first half production, as they have helped on both sides of the ice. Anssi Salmela has been up and down, but the rest of the team has helped cover up some of his mistakes, while Salmela has done a better job of limiting those mistakes overall.
The real surprise and help to the defense has been the breakout of Mark Fayne, who basically has come out of nowhere to help stabilize the Devils' defense.
Paired mostly with Henrik Tallinder during the last 18 games (Fayne only played 17), Fayne's statline is impressive, posting one goal, five assists and six points, with a plus-13 rating and 20 shots on goal over this time. Fayne has helped on both sides of the ice, including spending time as the power play QB (mostly on the second unit).
Not to get too ahead of ourselves, but Fayne's best asset he has shown thus far is the ability to get his shot on net from the point, something that isn't as easy to do as it might sound. In the last two games, Mark Fayne has eight shots on goal (four in each game), and this ability (granted its still a small sample) reminds me of Brian Rafalski. Keep in mind, I am not saying Mark Fayne is Brian Rafalski overall, just in this once facet of the game. They can't be the same player, as their size difference is night and day, plus Rafalski's speed as a skater was much better at his peak than Fayne's speed today.
All that being said, the Devils appear to have found something with their fifth round pick from 2005, and Fayne has been a very pleasant surprise, considering last season, he was playing at Providence College, and now he's having success at the NHL level. Who saw that coming, and more importantly, who saw that coming this quickly?
#3 Improvement From the Goaltending
Everyone can say what they want that the success and failure of a goaltender is dependent on the defense in front of them. While this is obviously true, I don't think either Martin Brodeur or Johan Hedberg was that proud of their execution at most times throughout the first half of the season.
However, in the last eighteen games, like everyone else on the Devils, it seems things have turned around greatly. Despite some health issues with Martin Brodeur this year (knee, elbow), the Devils have moved up the rankings in goals against up to 12th place, which is impressive considering they were in and around the league basement while they were struggling.
Let's not overlook those struggles either, because there was a point in time that Martin Brodeur needed to take a step back and bow out of some starts back in December to try and find his game. He definitely seemed to find it, helping to springboard the recent Devils' surge until his knee injury on February 6th against Montreal. He passed off the torch to Johan Hedberg, who definitely has took it and ran with it, posting gaudy numbers, including winning the NHL second star of the week award this past week.
If the Devils are going to overcome all odds and make it to a playoff spot, they are going to need the goaltending to remain at a high level.
#2 Ilya Kovalchuk Has Got His Groove Back
Ilya Kovalchuk has been perhaps the most notable part of the Devils' resurgence, with 11 goals and nine assists in his last 18 games, and has played at a plus-10 over that span, including 10 straight games that he has played at either a plus or zero, and also had at least one point. It's no coincidence he's been working under heavy scrutiny this season, after everything that took place over the Summer of Kovalchuk.
There was an eight game streak without a goal from November 15 - December 2nd. There was the shootout attempt that wasn't on November 10th. There was a minus-30 plus/minus rating as of January 8th. Not to mention, there was also the one-game benching by John MacLean for being late to a mandatory meeting. Take your pick for where Kovalchuk hit rock bottom.
But, as bad as it was then, things have been as good as can be now. The last 18 games have shown everything that Lou Lamoriello likely envisioned when he was acquired last February from the Atlanta Thrashers. Head Coach Jacques Lemaire has gotten Kovalchuk to buy into being a defensive presence, which has helped Kovalchuk have more puck possession, and ultimately, produce more points.
Paired with Travis Zajac and Nick Palmieri recently has appeared to be a great fit for all three, who have produced 19 goals and 21 assists, and all a minimum plus-10 during the magical run. Palmieri provides the size and ability to stand in front of the net, while Zajac has been the defensive foundation for the line, helping to create space for Ilya Kovalchuk to work his magic. Hopefully the trio can continue its chemistry and the Devils can ride that magic all the way to a playoff spot.
#1 Jacques Lemaire Restores Confidence, Brings Back Devils Hockey & Mentality
It's often said that a Head Coach doesn't have a great impact on a professional sports team. Well, obviously, those people have not followed the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils, where the return of Jacques Lemaire has absolutely changed the fortune of the Devils' season. That isn't meant to be taken as an insult on the departed rookie Head Coach John MacLean, but I can see how many might take it that way. MacLean was thurst into an unfair situation almost out of necessity, and was basically set up to fail with all the factors he had to deal with.
Lemaire was brought in on December 23rd to have the Devils get their game back to respectability. The team had a shattered confidence like I have never seen before in professional sports. It was clear the talent was there, it was mostly clear there was effort, it just didn't seem to matter. No matter what they did, it would eventually backfire, or at least that's what they thought.
The best I can come up to describe the situation is to use a scene from the movie The Replacements, where Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves' characters discuss the feeling of what it was like to feel like you were in Quicksand. It isn't necessarily a great example, but it does help to describe the feeling it seemed the Devils had for the first half of the season.
Then, the magic of confidence started to emerge from the depths of when things were starting to think like they would never get better, almost as if a switch was turned on. Was Jacques Lemaire that switch? It certainly looks that way, as the results started to turn around on January 8th, in a 6-3 victory over Tampa Bay. It certainly had not come immediately, as the Devils started out 1-7 under Lemaire.
Jamie Langenbrunner was dealt to Dallas on January 7th, right before the seventh of those losses. Since then, the Devils are now 15-2-2. Did Langenbrunner somehow distract the message Jacques Lemaire was trying to tell the Devils? Despite rumors of conflict between Lemaire and Langenbrunner, I find it hard to believe his being traded alleviated all the problems the team was encountering, it's likely Langenbrunner's being dealt is more coincidental timing than anything else, but it does give conspiracy theorists something to think about, that's for sure.
From a technical standpoint, it seems like the Devils are playing tighter as a team, and have all five skaters on the ice playing a much tighter and sound game. There is not only good puck movement and puck possession, but guys are doing the hard skating that is needed when the team doesn't have the puck. Quite simply, the team is playing more efficiently and productive as well. It's hard not to notice how everyone has bought into the same philosophy, and the team has the puck with a chance to score a lot more often. Not only has the game become more fun and enjoyable for the players to play, you can now easily say the same thing about the fans, the games have been significantly more fun to watch, too.
You can debate to what extent he has had an impact, but I don't think anyone can make the argument that Jacques Lemaire isn't the biggest reason for the Devils' resurgence.
The Devils have made up 17 points on the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference since January 6th, and now stand 10 points out of a playoff spot (with a game in hand on Carolina), and 12 points but remain in 13th place in the East, even after their magical 15-1-2 record the last eighteen games. With 23 games left, the Devils would need to go 17-4-2 (.783 win %) in their last 18 games to get to 90 points. While that wouldn't guarantee a playoff spot, it certainly would put them in the mix.
If you look at the website SportsClubstats.com, it shows a mathematical breakout of the Devils chances to make the playoffs. Currently using their weighted average method, it shows the Devils as having a 0.8% chance that the Devils will end the season in the playoffs. While I think it is higher than this number, it definitely remains a long shot. So, what will happen?
Beginning with tonight's action, the games will tell the story. Every time the Devils win, it makes the Impossible Dream all that much more attainable. The Rangers play the Hurricanes tonight, so one of those teams will lose, the Devils and their fans should hope the game is decided in regulation, and will hope the rivals they chase continue to level off, with no one getting hot and potentially breaking away from the pack. The mantra of one game a time sums it up best for the players and coaches, while "We Believe," is the perfect rallying cry for the fans.
For now, everyone else should stay tuned, because if the Devils pull it off, it will be one for the ages. Also, GM Lou Lamoriello is left to decide what to do for the upcoming Trade Deadline, which is on Feb 28th. A couple Devils wins could give Lamoriello an idea or two about buying, while a loss or two would have to make the Devils clear sellers. It should be a wild ride either way.
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