Saturday, December 26, 2009

Part two of Devils' season begins in DC tonight

In this Olympic year, I kind of consider this Devils season as a three-part trilogy. Normally it's a two-parter (pre and post-All Star break) but this season there are really three...from Opening Night up to the holiday, from the holiday to the Olympics then after the Olympics to the end of the season. I consider the Devils' first 35 games as a seperate entity because it's nearly half a season after all, plus Martin Brodeur was able to put all of the individual records in his column, setting the rest of the season up to be only about how the team plays.

Could the first part possibly have gone any better for the Devils? Certainly not record-wise, where the Devils were 26-8-1, going into their four-day holiday hiatus on a five-game winning streak, with the best record in the entire league. Of course injury-wise things could have been a little better in one sense, especially with the news that Derek chronicled about Paul Martin being out another four weeks (which comes as little surprise to this blogger). Not to mention David Clarkson and Danius Zubrus being on the mend still, but at least Clarkson's skating with the team and may even be back as soon as Monday's home game against the Thrashers.

There was even a silver lining in the MASH unit though, the Devils found out that young players like Vladimir Zharkov and Mark Fraser can play in the NHL and are closer to being full-time contributors than even the team thought. Not to mention players who weren't expected to play a big role such as Andy Greene, Rob Niedermayer or even recent fourth-line standout Dean McAmmond (not even on an NHL roster Opening Night) all stepped up and were the biggest surprises of the first part of the season. Particularly Greene, who's gone from healthy scratch at the start of the season to playing at an All-Star level. Or perhaps at an Olympic might just work out that Greene replaces Martin on the Team USA roster but that's a long way off still.

Also among the breakouts were Clarkson himself - seven goals and eight assists in 24 games before his injury and rookie Nicklas Bergfors (12 G, 11 A in 35 G), who incredibly leads the team in power play goals by a wide margin with eight. I figured he'd replace Brian Gionta just fine, especially the Gionta that's been a mediocre player at best the last couple years but the former first-round pick who's spent the last four years in Lowell is proving he's more than ready for the responsibilities the Devils have entrusted him with this year.

Of course to have such a good record, you need your stars to play well and just like last season Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner and Travis Zajac are pacing the team in points though they haven't always played together this year. Even with Parise's recent eleven-game goalless streak, he's averaging a point a game and hasn't been a liability defensively - the mark of a complete player. Patrik Elias is also playing like himself after being hurt the first month of the season and rusty in his first few games off the injury list. Elias's return has also revived Brian Rolston, who's put up 13 goals in 34 games and is finally starting to live up to his FA contract and his reputation of being a legit top six player on the Bruins and Wild.

Defensively, people keep harping on the fact the Devils no longer have a Scott Stevens, pine for the ghost of Scott Niedermayer to return and lament the loss of Martin - but once again the team's in the Jennings race for fewest goals allowed. A good chunk of the credit has to go to this disrespected unit. I've already touched on the contributions of Greene (who's surprisingly replaced Martin all by himself and with added offense to boot) and young Fraser who's handling the #6 role just fine and getting decent enough minutes - usually around 12-15 per night.

Bryce Salvador's perhaps the unsung hero of the team, playing 20+ a night himself, blocking shots while defending top forwards and occasionally dropping the gloves himself. Despite having only eight points in 35 games he's a +10, putting him only behind Fraser and Greene among d-men in that category. Colin White's also provided good defense in his 35 games and the former hothead's cut down his penalties to a ridiculously low 6 PIM's, unthinkable for those who saw him play in Albany and when he first came up! Mike Mottau's logged more minutes than he's been used to, and has played better recently after a really rocky few weeks. After a slow start to the season before his injury Johnny Oduya's picked it up since coming back - though he still hasn't provided enough offensively with just one goal in 20 games, he's further stabilized the blueline defensively and also proved he could play good hockey without Martin.

Granted, when you talk about defense and the Devils allowing the second fewest goals in the league it all starts with Brodeur - having another spectacular season with a 23-8-1 record in 32 starts with a 2.1 GAA, .920 save percentage and three historic shutouts. With the Devils in first and the Olympics looming will Brodeur play fewer games down the stretch? I'll believe it when I see it. Even with Yann Danis playing well in his three starts, going 3-0 with a 2 GAA and .930 save percentage, the Devils haven't shown any inclination to alter their yearly plan of letting Brodeur play 75 games. I've already touched on this mindset in other blogs so I won't do it here.

Coaching-wise? Maybe the sequel can live up to the original, at least in the case of Jacques Lemaire who's had an impact this year reminiscent of when he first came to the Devils in 1994. While he doesn't have to show the team how to win this time around, he's sure had to do a lot of coaching with all the younger players and veteran castoffs that have had to be thrust into bigger roles than they were projected for. Not only have the Devils not skipped a beat, they've continued to excel.

For another organization, Lemaire would be a Jack Adams candidate but not here. I don't think any Devils coach will get serious consideration for that award until after Brodeur and GM Lou Lamoriello leave since it usually goes to a team that overachieves in relation to what they were supposed to be at the start of the season. Especially with all the other surprise stories around the league - Atlanta, LA, Phoenix and Colorado for starters. Still, he and his staff which include three of his former players - Scott Stevens, Chris Terreri and Tommy Albelin as well as right-hand man Mario Tremblay - have made their presence known. Lemaire hasn't been as rigid as he was during his first tenure but he hasn't let bad habits fester either.

So now the second part of the season begins in earnest, with five games over eight nights in three cities - starting with the matchup in DC against the Caps, against whom the Devils are looking for a season sweep, then we play the Thrashers at home on Monday. Predictably an improving Atlanta team is still giving us fits, splitting the two games though they looked a lot better in the early-season meeting at the Rock than they did recently down south. Next Wednesday comes our fourth showdown of the season with the Penguins, but surprisingly it's the first one in New Jersey as the Devils swept the Stanley Cup champs in Pittsburgh this season and then the following night on New Year's Eve, the Devils roll into Chicago to take on the league's best defensive team in the Blackhawks. Finally next Friday the Devils finish this strenuous stretch in Minnesota, against Lemaire's long-time team.

Hopefully part two is at least almost as good as part one was.

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