At 33-33-4, the New Jersey Devils sit in 12th place with 70 points, six behind Buffalo for the last playoff spot. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
While the miraculous run by the New Jersey Devils has been one of the top stories of the season’s second half, there’s a certain bent irony in the fact the only team that has beaten Jacques Lemaire’s crew this month is Ottawa – and the Sens have done it twice.
In the latest issue of The Hockey News I spoke with sports psychologist Dr. Pierre Beauchamp about the mentality of different teams down the stretch. The focus was on spoiler teams, but the squads that are still chasing a playoff spot were also covered. Remarkably, that Devils brigade that seemed dead in the water under since-fired rookie coach John MacLean is still in the Eastern Conference playoff picture thanks to its 23-4-2 stretch. Dr. Beauchamp, not surprisingly, gave a lot of the credit to the return of Lemaire behind the bench.
“He went back to individual skills,” Beauchamp said. “Their focus is in the right direction. They have a plan.”
Boy, do they. Dump-and-chase is dead and the Devs are playing with the puck more, something that works perfectly in the hands of, say, an elite winger who had just signed a headline-grabbing contract in the summer. And looking at Ilya Kovalchuk’s comparables between serving under MacLean and Lemaire, it’s not hard to see what Dr. Beauchamp is talking about when it comes to concentrating on individual skills instead of worrying about outside chatter.
Under MacLean, Kovalchuk had 18 points in 32 games; was ignominiously scratched for another (reportedly for being late to a team meeting); and registered an ugly minus-22 rating. He also suffered the indignity of losing the puck altogether on a shootout attempt against Buffalo that gave the Sabres the victory as a direct result.
Once Lemaire took over, however, ‘Kovy’ turned over a new leaf. In 37 games under the veteran bench boss, Kovalchuk has 33 points and a plus-3 rating. When he was muffing shootout attempts and racking up minuses, all the fan and media attention went to his $100-million contract. Now the talk is strictly about New Jersey wins.
On top of that, Martin Brodeur is on fire once again after posting some of the worst stats of his career, while veteran winger Brian Rolston is scoring again, notching six goals in his past 15 games and six points in his past seven.
The Senators, slayers of all things Jersey lately, should not be considered unlikely spoilers to the Devils’ belated playoff run. After all, as the last-place team in the Eastern Conference, Ottawa is the ultimate spoiler team.
“When you’re playing for next year and don’t know who will be in charge, everybody pulls together,” Beauchamp said. “They have nothing to lose because expectations are not high.”
Which would explain how the Devils got doused twice by the Sens, first on a two-goal effort from call-up Erik Condra – who was playing his 10th NHL game that night – and then by a combination of veteran grinder Chris Neil and pending unrestricted free agent Ryan Shannon. All those players had something to prove, whether it be future worth (Condra and Shannon) or rewarding the franchise for keeping the faith past the trade deadline (Neil). Oh, and Ottawa’s goalies in those two games? Colorado cast-off Craig Anderson and Anaheim cast-off Curtis McElhinney.
While not a death blow, New Jersey’s latest loss to Ottawa was a big setback for their post-season hopes. But the Devils are still on a remarkable run and one that should not be overlooked, since it has been borne more out of structure than desperation. As Dr. Beauchamp noted, “they could be dangerous if they make the playoffs.”
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.