Sunday, February 20, 2011
Devils sweep weekend, three-game series with Canes to pull within ten
Okay it’s getting hard not to get carried away now. As much as I’ve been enjoying this run back to respectability, in the back of my mind I’ve been a cynic about our playoff chances. Last night’s game and where it fell on the schedule was one reason why, we usually lose when we go to Carolina and we almost always go to Carolina the night after a home game. Look at the game after Martin Brodeur broke the wins record at home, the Devils had to go to Carolina the next night and got wasted. Or earlier this year for that matter, when the Devils got a rare first-half win over the Thrashers then got smoked in Raleigh on New Year’s Day. A regulation loss last night would have all but ended the playoff chase, putting the Devils fourteen points back of Carolina with 23 games remaining.
Instead, the Devils pounded the Canes for their third win over Carolina in eight days in such convincing fashion you almost have to believe anything’s possible, even probable at this point. Hey, we were unbelievably bad in the first half – why not be unbelievably good in the second half? It’d fit in with this already crazy season. We’ve gone from 27 points back to 10 in record time, from nineteen games under .500 to just five under in the span of five weeks. My unofficial benchmarks for getting back in the playoff race were have a ten-game winning streak and get to .500. Well, our current winning streak is at seven and this overall stretch is an insane 15-1-2, I’d have to say we’re back into it now, despite the sobering realization that if the season ended today we’d still have the 4th overall pick because of our bad first half.
Not only are the Devils making their own fans believers (judging by the amount of people wearing Believe-NJ t-shirts last night at Miami Mike’s viewing party), but they’re making the rest of the league believers too. You have to believe the Canes are hearing footsteps after losing five points to the Devils in three head-to-head matchups and after beating the Rangers in a taut 1-0 game Friday they’ve made New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist a believer too.
“They’re in the race,” Lundqvist said. “It’s unbelievable, but they’re in the race.”
That encapsules this insanity very nicely. It’s to the point where the Devils are no longer automatically going to be selling assets at the deadline, I would say they could even become buyers except quite honestly why would you change anything on a team that’s gotten points in 17 of their last 18 games, in the process winning a boatload of one-goal games and all sorts of games they had no business winning (like last Friday’s game against the Sharks, a seventh game in eleven days)?
For three straight games before last night ex-Thrasher teammates Ilya Kovalchuk and Johan Hedberg monopolized the #1 and #2 stars and you have to say both are leading the charge right now, unlikely as it is for different reasons. In Hedberg’s case he’s been on such a hot streak he’s even relegated Brodeur to the bench in the last couple of games since the HOF’er to be came off of IR though it would be nice if Brodeur gets in another practice or two before coming back, and you could definitely throw him in Tuesday against a non-conference team. That said, you don’t want to stall Hedberg’s momentum by having him sit five days either.
As far as Kovy though, he has come out of the wilderness and is again one of the most dynamic players in hockey, only with a new awareness of other aspects of the game. A play early in Friday’s game really impressed me, when Henrik Tallinder flipped a puck toward the boards and it looked like it was going out for a delay of game penalty, Kovy deflected the puck with a high stick to cancel out the penalty. Even Carolina announcer Tripp Tracy admitted Kovy had become a ‘three zone’ player. Clearly the biggest reason for this is Jacques Lemaire, and Kovy’s reverence toward him. Honestly, it’s rare these days to see a star player show such respect to any coach though you can understand why, Lemaire was a HOF player and has coached for a long time, if anyone could untap all of Kovy’s potential it’s Jacques and he’s been doing it in the second half of the season.
And I have to vehemently disagree with Derek’s assessment that the Devils are again boring, yes they’re playing a surprisingly sound defensive system now (Hedberg called Friday’s effort the best defense he’s ever seen from a team in front of him) but honestly the only reason Friday’s game was even close was Lundqvist, who made his usual assortment of spectacular saves against us - only allowing an equally spectacular breakaway goal by Kovy. Wednesday’s game should have been more of a blowout than 3-2, we gave up a couple of late goals to make it artificially close and last night was also no contest territorially. For all of our one-goal wins lately, the Devils had a really dominant week. And the week before the Devils came back to win three straight games, also not indiciative with the get ahead, stay ahead mode of the ‘trap system’.
Certainly the hype before Tuesday’s game won’t be boring, not that playing Dallas is quite as critical as the Cane and Ranger games were this week since it’s not a four-point game against a team we’re chasing, but it offers a different kind of twist as former captain Jamie Langenbrunner faces his ex-team for the first time since his exile. You do wonder what he’s thinking, seeing the Devils win game after game with Lemaire and without him while Dallas has struggled big-time over this last month, going from Pacific leaders to potentially out of the playoffs entirely?
Still, the hype about what Jamie’s departure meant to the team will take a back seat to potentially getting to within single digits of the playoff chase by Tuesday night and every game remains important. Realistically the Devils still have to go 18-5 to get to 92 points, which could all but assure a playoff spot. Hopefully a couple of the teams in front of us fall back more and the target number gets even less but either way it’s fun to watch a team that has to play every game like it’s a Game 7, you don’t worry about the team having an off night or taking a team lightly, after our start we can’t afford to.
Either way, I’m starting to believe this could be more than a chase just to get back to and above .500.