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A Devil Of A Season Finally Going Right

The lightbulb seems to have clicked for the New Jersey Devils.

In their past four games, the Devils are 3-0-1, capturing seven out of a possible eight points. They’ve scored 18 goals in that span, suddenly finding the goal in bunches. They’ve also only allowed opponents 10 goals against, a testament to the improved defense.

Individuals have also played better. Ilya Kovalchuk netted five goals in his last nine games. Martin Brodeur‘s play is drastically improved. Even rookies Nick Palmieri and Mattias Tedenby have provided secondary scoring.

All of these things contribute to the Devils’ recent surge. While it probably will not lead to a playoff berth, it’s a sign that this team wasn’t the dumpster fire we thought it was. With several factors contributing to the team’s success, I’d like to give each one an individual look.

Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk have found recent offensive success. That means Lemaire will split them in the next few games. Photo Credit: Chris O'Meara/AP Photo

1. Finally, some offense!

The Devils’ offense this season has been terrible. With scorers like Kovalchuk, Jason Arnott and Zach Parise struggling, the Devils sputtered out of the gate. In their first 45 games, New Jersey has recorded one goal or less in 22 of them. That’s almost half a season’s worth of offensive futility.

The past four games has showcased the scoring expected from this roster. The Devils are scoring in every situation, and while the powerplay is scuffling, the offense looks better. Players are creating scoring chances and settling into their roles. Linemates are adjusting to each other and developing chemistry, an important part of creating any successful offense.

Kovalchuk credited his increased scoring to his chemistry with Travis Zajac.

“Before that, I got some chances, but they just didn’t go in,” Kovalchuk said to Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. “Now, overall we’re playing better. That is why. My linemates they create way more room for me and it looks like it’s clicking. We’ve got a lot of opportunities and we scored some goals.”

Of course, if those lines fail, head coach Jacques Lemaire will change them without question. Hopefully he keeps these lines, because they’ve proved they can work.

2. Lemaire’s Return

When Lemaire left last season, most Devils’ fans were shoving him out the door. We were tired of the constant line juggling, fractured locker room and poor play. The abysmal playoff series last year only fueled the dislike for the coach.

The hiring of John MacLean brought optimism and a promise of a reinvigorated offense. All that optimism disappeared with the Devils’ struggles. To bring this team back, Lou Lamoriello turned to Lemaire, and his interim stint has brought a confidence and swagger back to New Jersey.

Zajac believed that, since Lemaire took over, the team’s play dramatically improved.

“I don’t know if it’s anything different,” the Devils’ center told Gulitti. “I think our system play is a little better 5-on-5. We’re playing more as a five-man unit, defensively, offensively and started scoring some goals, so we’re getting some confidence. You’re starting to see guys getting excited now scoring and going to the tough areas. When you have that confidence and it’s fun playing and you want to score goals and you’re going to win more games. Obviously we have nothing to lose, so we’re just playing right now.”

Lemaire believes a simple shift in play helped the team improve.

“The guys are playing hard,” Lemaire said to Gulitti. “The guys are playing together. They believe they can do it a little more. They’re skating and they want to succeed.”

Lemaire has free reign of the team, since he’s only the interim coach. But he’s instilled confidence in his players and brought the Devils out of the doldrums. They won’t make the playoffs, but at least they are respectable.

 

Nick Palmeiri hasn't looked intimidated playing on the top line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. The rookie has three points in eight games. Photo Credit: Alan Diaz/AP Photo

3. The Replacements Improve

The Devils have been besieged by injuries the past two seasons. Unlike last year, when the team lost role players, the Devils suffered injuries to several impact players. Bryce Salvador, who Lemaire called the team’s “best defensive defenseman“, hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion during the preseason. Parise hasn’t played since undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Brodeur missed almost two weeks with a bruised right elbow.

As the injuries piled up, several rookies were rushed to the NHL. While some of these players succeeded early (Matt Taormina), others struggled to adjust. The defense suffered, the offense sputtered, and the Devils were stuck in a rut.

Several players, however, improved through the steady playing time. Rookie defenseman Mark Fayne isn’t great yet, but he’s become a good defender who can contribute offensively. Palmieri hasn’t been intimidated playing on the top line. Tedenby looks to be a potential top-six forward on this team.

There will be growing pains, but the valuable experience these players gained provided them with confidence. They may not become regular NHL-ers, but these players can contribute this season. That’s all the Devils need right now.

4. Brodeur Starts To Find His Groove

Four great games doesn’t provide a great sample size to draw from, but we’ll use it here anyway. In the past four games, Brodeur is 3-0-1 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .913 save-percentage. While the GAA isn’t great, Brodeur has shown improved play. His glove is better, his rebound control improved and he’s presenting a confident demeanor. He’s not quite the Brodeur of old, but these four games have shut down this post I wrote earlier this month.

We can only say Brodeur is improving if the performances continue to improve. So far, he’s looked good. But he needs to stretch this out over 10 or 20 games to consider this a true turnaround.

The Devils still have work to do. If they fall back into their rut, no one will look positively back on these four games. Hopefully these games are a building block to a strong second half. It finally seems that this lost season is finally going right.

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