Monday, April 12, 2010

Devils' 2009-10 regular season wrapup and playoff thoughts

With three Stanley Cups since 1995, nine division titles and eleven 100-point seasons the Devils have maintained a standard of excellence and high expectations every year. Thirteen consecutive playoff appearances, four division crowns in five years and another Jennings Trophy for being the best defensive team in the league in 2009-10 are all nice of course - but around here, that's not good enough. While there may not be any Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer or Claude Lemieux around anymore the goal is the same for this franchise, to win the Stanley Cup. To do that you need sixteen hard-fought playoff wins.
It is in this area where the team has come up short since the lockout. I don't really count the forgettable 2003-04 season where we lost to the Flyers in a five-game series (our only playoff loss to Philly up to this point), for the team was clearly distracted by the news of then-coach Pat Burns coming down with cancer as well as the uncertainty surrounding captain Stevens, who would later retire due to aftereffects of a concussion suffered during the 2003 Cup run.
Since the lockout though, the team has come up woefully short in the playoffs. If our sweep of the Rangers in 2006 provided a measure of satisfaction after three prior playoff losses to our bitter rivals, our quick ouster at the hands of the Hurricanes and then-rookie Cam Ward was an abrupt ending to a season where we'd found our stride after a slow start with fifteen straight wins that led us to a surprising division title and first-round playoff sweep. 2006-07 provided another quiet second-round ouster, this time at the hands of the Senators.
Even those playoff losses were nothing compared to the embarassment of the last two seasons though, both under then-coach Brent Sutter. In 2007-08 the Devils scraped together a 99-point season but were utterly dominated by their rivals all year long, particularly the Islanders and Rangers. In the Rangers' case it was Sean Avery and ex-Devil Scott Gomez leading the way (along with Henrik Lundqvist) for their incredible eleven wins in thirteen tries against the Devils including a five-game ouster where the Devils failed to win once at the Rock in its inaugural playoffs. Last year even managed to top that one for heartbreak though, as the Devils dropped a seven-game series to the Hurricanes in spectacular fashion, losing Game 4 in Carolina with .2 seconds left in regulation then turning a lead to a loss in Game 7 with just 1:20 left.
So going into this year's playoffs, the big question remains: Does this year's team have the stuff to succeed where our most recent ones have failed? Sure there have been changes...for one, the return of coach Jacques Lemaire, who was the architect of the team's initial rise to power from 1993-98. Departing veterans like John Madden and Brian Gionta were replaced on the roster by younger players such as Nicklas Bergfors and Rod Pelley while the core - led by goaltender Martin Brodeur, captain Jamie Langenbrunner and star winger Zach Parise - remained intact.
Early in the season injuries forced further tweaks to the lineup. Veterans such as Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond were brought in and became regulars. More rookies such as Mark Fraser and Vladimir Zharkov got significant playing time. Preseason afterthought Andy Greene became the breakout performer of the year, going from healthy scratch at the start of the season to becoming a legit top four defenseman and the team's leading point-getter from the blueline by the end of it. Through it all, the Devils maintained a blistering pace, going 32-11-1 for 65 points in 44 games.
Pretty much all seasons hit a bump in the road at some point and from mid-January on the Devils found themselves caught in quicksand. Their longest winning streak the rest of the season would be a paltry two games, and the team only accomplished that feat once in a two-month stretch that blanketed the Olympic break. In many ways, the Olympics proved to be the highlight of the winter for Devil fans on the ice as Langenbrunner and Parise's performances for Team USA led them to the brink of a gold medal, only to be turned back by Sidney Crosby and Canada in overtime of the gold medal game.
While the team continued to struggle, GM Lou Lamoriello made a strong statement with his early February trade of Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick for star sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and former Devil Anssi Salmela. Acquiring Kovalchuk - a splashy move seldom made by the GM in recent years - sent a message loud and clear that the Devils were in it to win it, as they say.
Although the Devils continued to struggle for weeks after, the Kovalchuk trade energized the fanbase nonetheless as we sold out nine of our final twelve home games. For his part, Kovalchuk didn't dissapoint in the regular season, putting up ten goals and 27 points in 27 games with a +9 and doing everything to fit in. Maybe he hasn't quite put up the gaudy offensive numbers he has in the past yet, but a lot of skaters would kill to have that kind of 'off' third of a season.
With Kovalchuk in tow and most of the veterans who had been on IR (such as defenseman Paul Martin and gritty winger David Clarkson) set to return, Lamoriello made one final tweak at the deadline, acquiring Martin Skoula from the Leafs for a fifth-round pick, which was an odd but happy turn of events after Skoula had been dumped by the Penguins to the Leafs just the day before. Perhaps GM Brian Burke was doing mentor Lou a favor, as Skoula proved to be the best deadline d-man acquisition in years. Not surprisingly, Skoula had played under Lemaire before and unlike other failed imports like Brad Lukowich and Nicklas Havelid, he made a positive contribution, shoring up the d-core by replacing Fraser in the lineup and becoming a steady presence alongside Martin.
Yet even with all the pieces now in place the team continued to run in place, perhaps either still caught up in the winter malaise, struggling to find chemistry with the new and returning players trying to find their niche with Lemaire's constant line shuffling or a combination of both. Despite wins like a dominant 5-2 showing against the Penguins on St. Patrick's Day where the team wore throwback green jerseys in front of an electric sellout crowd came losses like a drab Alberta trip, losing big to Sutter's Flames and then getting shutout by the worst team in the league in Edmonton two days later. Not to mention all the late blown points in games against Boston, the Rangers and Blackhawks in an eight-day span.
Despite the team's struggles, their dominant early start kept the Devils in good position throughout and our perfect 6-0 record against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins proved to be decisive in the race for the division title, once the team started to pick things up down the stretch at last. New Jersey won four of its last five games and once again resembled their early-season juggernaut on its way to clinching first home ice for the first-round, then the division and eventually the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Our reward in the first round? A showdown with the rival Flyers, a team we went 1-4-1 against in the 2009-10 regular season, including a 5-1 whipping in Philly just two weeks ago in the teams' last meeting of the year - until Wednesday. True, home-ice was important for us during the regular season as evidenced by our 27-10-4 record (which was 26-6-4 after October), but it hasn't been a factor at all in the last few playoffs. Despite selling out every playoff game ever played at the Rock, the team's record has been just 2-5 in those two series at home and our season had ended three straight times in New Jersey.
And don't be fooled by the fact the Flyers finished 15 points behind us, they have talent. I should know, I erroneously picked them to win the division two years running. While they've always had goaltending questions and went through a coaching change early in the season, losing your first two goalies to injury would cripple just about anyone. Yet, one-time and now current Flyer Brian Boucher has had a bit of a revival down the stretch, playing a series of good games including the sudden-death shootout win yesterday that put the Flyers in the playoffs after they struggled mightily for most of March and early April.
Just two years ago the Flyers were in the Conference Finals with Martin Biron in net for crying out loud, and their only playoff defeats the last two seasons have come at the hands of the Penguins. Philly has a talented group of forwards led by centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. As a team they scored fourteen more goals than us this year, as we finished tied for 19th (with the Rangers and Islanders ironically enough) among 30 teams in scoring. And oh yes, they added star defenseman Chris Pronger during the offseason, who along with Dwayne Roloson led a ragtag Oilers team to within one game of the Cup in 2006, then played a starring role in Anaheim's championship the very next season.
Perhaps I've been painting a bleak picture in the last three paragraphs. I'm not going to lie, this is the series I didn't want. Not that I think we can't beat them, if this team plays the way it did the last five games of the year and early in the season I'll take our chances. Regular season success doesn't always lead to the same once the playoffs begin and our team has improved since many of the early-season tilts. Plus to be honest, maybe this team needs to feel threatened and not take anything for granted. And our key player - Brodeur - looks better going into the playoffs than he has in recent seasons.
However, having a star defenseman helps a great deal in the postseason and we don't currently have that guy (whereas the Flyers do in Pronger), despite the fact Martin and Greene are capable players. Plus they play a physical style, sometimes edgy and often over it. Admittedly I'm most paranoid about one well-placed elbow by Pronger on one of our stars ending our postseason. Or one cheap shot by a guy such as Daniel Carcillo. I'm not entirely sure we have the size to contend with them, although Clarkson's return and having guys like Colin White and Bryce Salvador on defense can help somewhat with that element of the Flyers' game.
As much as I want to pick the Devils to win, and think that if we do somehow get past this series that it could be a very long playoff run (think at least deep into the third round), I just can't help but have an impending feeling of doom and think that bad things will happen in threes. Not to mention Lemaire still makes me nervous. I'll pick Flyers in six games, this time mercifully losing our final game away from the Prudential Center. Hopefully I'm just as wrong about the Flyers winning this series as I was about them winning the division.

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