The season has just barely begun and the New Jersey Devils are already starting to make the beginning half of last season a distant memory. It has been beaten to death, the disappointment and gruesome play that plagued the Devils early in the 2010-2011 season so there is no sense in rehashing painful recollections of a season past sans playoff competition.
However, it is important to note that the Devils have taken great strides towards becoming everything that last year’s squad was not. Though a relatively small sample of play to judge upon, it seems that defense, as has been the tradition in the Garden State, is the key to winning for the Devils once again as the 2011-2012 season rolls on.
It was a Saturday evening in Atlanta on December 18, 2010. The reeling Devils were trying desperately to turn around a season that was quickly approaching hopeless. The visiting Devils and every one of their fans could feel this could be the beginning of a turn around against a Thrasher's squad quickly falling from its early season precipice.
And just like that, the final horn sounded and the Devils sauntered off the ice wallowing in what can only be described as epic shame.The scoreboard displayed a 7-1 Thrasher victory, but that was hardly the most disheartening aspect of the night. No, the saddest realization, one that haunted players and fans alike, was that the Devils had forgotten how to win with defense.
For a franchise that propelled itself to three Stanley Cups in eight years on the backs of hall of fame defense men and trap schemes, December 18, 2011 was rock bottom.
Fast forward ten months to October 2011.
The Devils feature fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Adam Larsson as the centerpiece of the defensive unit. Veterans Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov are in the lineup and healthy, and youngster, Mark Fayne, seems to be finding himself as a player. Each of the three victories that the Devils have accumulated have been one or two goal differentials. This means that this squad knows how to protect a small lead, reminiscent of the championship era quarterbacked by defensive legends Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer.
It is clear that first year Devils coach, Peter Deboer, bases his game plan around a stingy defense. When the Devils execute their schemes and play shut down, suffocating defense inside their own zone, they win. It is that simple, and yet, that complicated as well. Everything rides on the responsibility of the defenders and forwards, and the fact that Ilya Kovalchuk, not exactly renowned for his defensive prowess, is playing hard in the defensive zone speaks hugely to the faith that the players have in Deboer's defensive system.
Make no mistake, the Devils defense has a long way to go to fulfill its potential, but from what I've witnessed so far in this still very young season, the Devils are returning to the defensive style that brought pride and glory to the Garden State, and it's paying off.