Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Devils sweep home-and-home with the Jets, prepare to host Bruins tomorrow

Things are good right now in the swamp. Not only are the Devils winning (14-5-1 in their last twenty games) but they're having fun as well, both of which are evidenced by this YouTube video of Patrik Elias's crucial goal in Winnipeg on Saturday. Fellow linemate and buddy Petr Sykora tried to get the puck to Elias in front, but Elias adroitly let it go through his legs to Adam Larsson at the point. Larsson in turn, had the presence of mind to fire the puck right towards the stick of Elias, who tipped it in for one of the Devils' highlight goals of the season and the eventually winning tally in a 2-1 win over the Jets.

Not only did Elias's third period goal win the game, but it also provided comic relief as Sykora went to hug his Czech comrade, but Elias veered towards Larsson and Sykora literally went splat, missing the hug. It led to a nice moment last night when Elias and Sykora did hug during the three stars after a more convincing 5-1 win over the Jets at the Prudential Center. Not to mention more amusement when postgame host Deb Placey didn't even realize why they'd made such a big deal of hugging until Elias told her about what happened Saturday and that it was all over YouTube. Then the postgame crew - including Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch - pulled the highlight of the play and laughed about it themselves.

While it's certainly easier to have fun when you're winning, you do get the sense this Devils team genuinely likes each other and pulls for each other. Perhaps some of the looseness is just a product of coach Pete DeBoer's calm, upbeat demeanor. Admittedly at times I've been critical of the fact DeBoer doesn't seem to have a strict side, but two things are becoming more obvious. One is that this team thankfully doesn't need a boot up its rear end every few minutes the way many past Devil teams have - certainly there have been a minimal number of games this year where the team's lacked effort. The other is that it does seem like DeBoer is willing to get on these guys in the locker room when it's required (during one game a few weeks back where the Devils struggled early, he admitted he did 'yell a bit' at the team during the intermission). DeBoer does seem to agree with the philosophy that you don't rip your team in public, but you can do it behind closed doors.

In addition to DeBoer, the leadership of the team is certainly strong with Elias, first-year captain Zach Parise and even the much-maligned Ilya Kovalchuk - who's played some of his best hockey as a Devil over this last month and has even become as much of a force shorthanded as Parise or rookie Adam Henrique. There's been none of the moodiness or worrying about players' roles on the team that existed the last few years under a veteran core that's mostly been swept out the door. Along with the stars, you have role players like Cam Janssen and Mattais Tedenby who also help keep the room upbeat. I've only been half facetious when I suggested elsewhere the only reason Tedenby's still here and not back in Albany (given his dissapointing first half) is that he's a good, fun kid that seems to be a positive locker room presence. Even when some quasi-contreversy flares up like Martin Brodeur being pulled after six minutes in Calgary, it seems to blow over quickly without any lasting impact.

Personalities and demeanor only tell half the story though...despite the injury bug that's sidelined three of the team's top four centers at one point or another - including Henrique, who's sat the last two games with a mild groin pull - the Devils have picked up their play since early December, when the team came up with a critical road win in Toronto that kept them from going winless on a tough four-game road trip. Since then, the Devils have won consistently and haven't even needed the shootout to do so - indeed, none of the team's last seven wins have come with aid of the skills competition after an early season run where it seemed the team could only win in a shootout.

Every facet of the game has picked it up - offensively the Devils are starting to break out more and more frequently, scoring twenty goals in their last six games. Even the power play is starting to creep upward in terms of efficiency. Defensively, the team's picked it up even while Andy Greene continues to remain on the shelf. Kurtis Foster's slowly found his niche and helped the power play recover from its two-season long coma while the Bryce Salvadors of the world provide a steadying presence. In a season where many key players around the league have been sidelined due to concussions, Salvador's comeback after missing an entire season has been one of the more suprising aspects of this Devil season.

And yes, the goaltending has picked it up lately after the disaster that was last Tuesday in Calgary, where both Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg got whipped, despite only facing a combined fourteen shots. Both have responded off that game well, as the Devils have only given up a single goal in each of the last three contests. While Brodeur's numbers have been poor for the balance of the season, he's given up just one goal in five of his last eight starts overall.

One of the games where Brodeur did give up more than a goal was the Devils' last machup with the Cup champion Bruins, who racked the legend for six in a rare noncompetitive effort from the Devils this season. After losing 6-1 at the Rock barely two weeks ago, the Devils get another shot at the Bruins tomorrow night in the same building. Unlike last time where the Bruins had won every game seemingly for a two-month stretch (and most in blowouts), Boston comes into this game playing like mere mortals after suffering road losses to Carolina and Tampa Bay over the last week. Despite the team's three-game winning streak and the fact the Devils are now a season-high nine games over .500, they have the look and sound of a team coming into tomorrow's game hungry, after being embarassed in front of their fans two weeks ago.

With just three games left before the All-Star break, the Devils aren't just looking to gain revenge on the Bruins but also create more seperation between themselves and the pack of teams fighting for a playoff spot. As much as it annoyed me not being able to go to last night's game, hopefully the team gives everyone more to cheer for tomorrow night.

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