Sunday, April 1, 2012

Devils clinch playoff berth in style

Last season is now officially a distant memory for the Devils and their fans, as Jersey’s Team is back in the postseason for the 20th time in 22 seasons with a convincing 5-0 win in Carolina last night. Just like Thursday and much of the season, everyone contributed as Martin Brodeur pitched a shutout and five different Devils scored goals, with each line contributing to the scoresheet. Maybe it was coincidence that the Devils clinched with John MacLean in the building, after his failed stint last year doomed the team to a top four draft pick. It was definitely symbolic as the final exorcism of last season, though.

A process that started last season under Jacques Lemaire has continued this year under Pete DeBoer with a more offensively friendly system. While at times it hasn’t resulted in goals, there are games like the last two where you can see the depth and talent on this team. Honestly, the last time the Devils had three lines that could score and four lines capable of playing NHL hockey was before the lockout. Not to mention Marek Zidlicky giving this team an element from the blueline it hadn’t possessed in a long time. Finally, the Devils have an NHL power play for the first time since 2006 and he’s the most offensively talented defenseman we’ve had since Scott Niedermayer – yes even more so than one of my favorite Devils, Brian Rafalski.

Even with the team’s great second half last season, this year has been a continual evolution for the Devils. Opening Night against the Flyers was about as low as it could get for a first game of the season, given that Philly kicked us all over the rink. Since then however, all of the problems that reared its ugly head at some point this season have been dealt with. Our PP was a nightmare in the first part of the season, but Lou Lamoriello addressed it – first with Kurtis Foster, then with Zidlicky (a much better two-way player). Giving up shorthanded goals was also an epidemic in the first half of the season, however as the PP has gotten better offensively it’s also cleaned up the mistakes on the back end. Melting down in third periods and giving up multi-goal leads was a problem in the first 50 or so games of the season, but I can’t remember the last time that happened either. Faceoffs have been an issue for much of the season, but getting Travis Zajac back has helped in that regard.

Also, the team’s star players have improved (other than Patrik Elias, who has been pretty steady throughout, though he’s faded a bit late) throughout the season. After a nightmarish first half, Brodeur has looked like the old Marty again in the second half, as opposed to an old Marty. New captain Zach Parise really struggled for the first fifteen or twenty games coming off of missing nearly an entire season due to injury, but he’s picked it up and has put together another 30+ goal campaign. Ilya Kovalchuk was giving away pucks left and right in the first two months of the season, but since then has played his best as a Devil both offensively and defensively, all while playing serious PK minutes for the first time in his career and at a relatively new position on the right wing.

Yet, the role players and unsung heroes have been just as much a part of this team as the stars have. No matter the situation, backup goalie Johan Hedberg gives a professional effort – whether he has to start several games in a row due to injury, or sit for multiple weeks when Brodeur’s on a roll, his play has remained constant throughout the whole season. On defense, nobody expected Bryce Salvador to return, let alone be the key presence he’s been for much of the year. Amazingly, Salvador is one of the few Devils to have played every game this season after missing all of last year with concussion-like symptoms due to an inner ear problem. Players like shot-blocking extraordinaire Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne and Andy Greene have helped steady a defense that looked unsettled early in the season but has played much better in key spots in the second half, even while teen prodigy Adam Larsson’s had to endure some hard knocks (literally and figuratively) learning on the job this season. Recently, unheralded Peter Harrold has stepped in and done a credible job as the #6 defenseman, as did Matt Taormina before that.

Up front, aside from the big three of Kovy, Parise and Elias, the Devils have gotten surprising contributions on a number of fronts. With Zajac hurt, someone had to step in and fill the void at center, and it turned out to be Adam Henrique, who did a terrific job not only centering Kovy and Parise for much of the season but also becoming an ace on the PK. Although Henrique probably won’t win the Calder trophy, Devil fans can rest assured he’ll be a key man for a long time to come here. Ironically Henrique only got the chance to fill in due to an injury to Jacob Josefson, but since the young Swede has come back, he’s settled in nicely on the fourth line and even added some offense to his game as of late. Unlike fellow second-year players Nick Palmeri (since traded) and Mattias Tedenby, Josefson’s continued to show progress this year.

If Salvador was the best comeback story among players already on the Devils, Petr Sykora was the best story in camp – as the former Devil was a non-roster invitee and not only won a job, but got important goals throughout the season and also helped rejuvenate Elias – who had his best season in at least three years. Czech buddies Sykora and Elias, along with Danius Zubrus combined to form the team’s best line early in the season and the trio has been reunited lately as the playoffs approach.

Even though he’s been here a number of years now, Zubrus has easily had his best season as a Devil this year. Usually the Devils have one or two guys that could play any position and any role and fill in nicely (think Sergei Brylin). Zubrus has become that guy for this current team, playing center, right wing, PP, PK and everywhere from the first line to the third line this season all while chipping in double digit goals. In addition to being a key linemate of Elias and Sykora early in the season, he was also on a very effective line with recent acquisitions Alexei Ponikarovsky and Steve Bernier a few weeks ago.

Ponikarovsky’s another vet who’s come in and found a role here he can excel in, while Bernier’s added much-needed depth to the back two lines. So has Ryan Carter, a waiver pickup early in the season who is one of the few guys that played for coach DeBoer in the past, and Carter even showed a surprising ability to fight in his last couple of games against the Rangers in addition to chipping in with the odd goal or assist to help the offense.

Yet, none of the above has had as surprising or as redeeming a season as has David Clarkson. Before this year Clarkson’s career high in goals was 17 and he hadn’t even been on that level as a player since Zdeno Chara fractured his ankle with a slapshot two and a half years ago. Dismissed as overpaid and a mental midget by most Devil fans (most of whom wanted him traded, I was in the minority in that I didn’t) who would never be able to do anything other than fight, try a wraparound, toe-drag or falling down, Clarkson’s been reborn again under current and former juniors coach DeBoer. Clarkson beat his career high in goals with months to go in the season, and even then it was preposterous he was keeping pace with Kovy and Zach for the team goal lead.

Even though I knew he always had 20-goal talent in him, I didn’t think he would keep that pace up…but he has, all the way to getting his 30th goal last night (and still only three behind Kovy for the team lead) – which turned out to be the playoff clincher for us. Clarkson attributes his uptick in goalscoring to using a shorter stick, as well as some unusual puck luck. Still, he’s played key minutes on the PP, even taking faceoffs there and when you go to the net, good things can happen and they’ve been happening for Clarkson all year. He’s even improved his passing a bit in recent weeks after not being able to spot the opposite end of the rink with a compass for most of his career. Plus I’m sure it helps playing for a coach who believes in you and will use you in key spots. And Clarkson certainly hasn’t abandoned the physical element of his game either, as evidenced by his 100+ PIM’s, he’s just picking and choosing his spots more wisely.

Clarkson’s play is symbolic of the team the Devils have become this season. As our GM would say, your best players have to be your best players and they have. With role players and younger players chipping in, this Devil team has the talent to finally do some damage in the playoffs again. Whether they will is another story, especially with the East getting more muddled by the day. At least now they’re heading in the right direction again as the playoffs approach.

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