NEWARK, N.J. – A little less than two months after taking over one of the worst teams in the NHL, Jacques Lemaire has the New Jersey Devils playing like, well, the Devils of old.
The franchise that came into the season looking for its 14th straight playoff berth is looking like a Stanley Cup contender again.
The question is do the Devils have enough time to overcame a deficit that saw them 27 points out of a playoff berth as recently as Jan. 9?
New Jersey has made up a ton of ground, posting a 12-1-2 record in its last 15 games.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game against Carolina at the Prudential Center, the Devils trail the Hurricanes by 14 points in the race for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with 26 games left in the regular season.
While the deficit can be overcome, the problem is there is more than just points separating New Jersey and Carolina. Atlanta (60 points), Buffalo (60), Florida (55), Toronto (54) and the New York Islanders (49) all have to be leapfrogged to get into post-season position.
“It’s still big,” Devils centre Jason Arnott said Tuesday, referring to the gap. “But we can’t think about that. We have to keep playing the way we are and try to come out with as many points as we can every game, and hope for the best. That’s all we can do right now. We can’t think because we cut down so much, it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be hard. We have to win every game.”
Almost to a man, the Devils insist they have stopped looking at the standings.
Lemaire even jokes about them, saying he never mentioned the standings to the team after replacing rookie coach John MacLean on Dec. 23.
“I don’t see why we would talk about that when we had problems that are more important than the standings,” Lemaire said. “It was to play like a hockey team.”
Lemaire has taught the Devils how to play hockey again by stressing the basics. The game starts in the defensive zone. The transition from defence to offence starts with short crisp passing out of the zone and up the ice.
Lemaire also wants his defenceman joining the rush and his forwards to know when its time to cover for the guys in the back.
It’s hockey 101, being taught by one of the best teachers in the game.
If there was a final element that Lemaire stressed, it was skating. He didn’t feel the team was in great shape when he took over and he made them skate until it hurt.
“Our system has changed dramatically from the time we started till now, and it changes every game,” Arnott said. “That’s one thing Jacques is great at. He singles out certain teams and we change our system or tweak it a little bit to try to check them better and get more offence out of it and win hockey games. That’s why he’s so good.”
Arnott said the system fits the Devils.
“This system may not fit every team or every style, but he has a way of breaking things down and seeing what certain guys can do and then putting in a system that works,” Arnott said.
Goaltender Johan Hedberg, who has only allowed four goals in winning the last three games with Martin Brodeur sidelined with a sprained right knee, said Lemaire has tightened the space between the forwards and defence, making it tougher for opposing teams to get any speed entering the Devils’ zone. He also has told his players to be more active, both physically and mentally, so they’re not caught flatfooted.
While he hated to offer a cliche, Hedberg said the only thing the Devils can do is play one game at a time.
“We’re shooting for the final end result,” he said. “We can’t worry about what the other teams are going to do. We’re going to have to get to 92 or 94 points, or whatever we need. We can’t worry about anything else.”
Lemaire also hasn’t hesitate to motivate his players. If they don’t play well, they sit.
And if they are on the outside looking in, he has found a way to get them back in the lineup.
The Devils tried to unload veteran Brian Rolston and his big salary when things were going really bad in December.
With Lemaire running the team, Rolston has become a contributor.
“We can’t control what happened at the beginning of the season,” Rolston said. “We can only control the next game and how we play. We want to continue doing that. If we get better and continue winning hockey games, maybe the end result may be there, or it might not be there. I’m not sure.”
However, Rolston believes there is hope.
“It is in the back of our minds to get into the playoffs, absolutely it is,” he said. “But I don’t think we are putting the cart before the horse. We have a lot of ground to make up, a lot of ground. We dug ourselves a huge hole and we are not out of that hole. It’s game by game. We have to beat the teams ahead of us. There is no secret about that.”
That’s progress, Arnott said, adding that 15 games ago, the Devils were thinking this was going to be a very long season.
“The buzz is in here that we could maybe do this,” Arnott said. “So, when you’ve got that attitude and you’ve got a system put in place like Jacques has and everybody is contributing on every basis, it makes it a lot of fun.”