By BRIAN FITZSIMMONS
It’s funny how, even in a lockout-shortened season, bad memories can seem so long ago.
Last Saturday, the Devils were bruised and battered by the Pittsburgh Penguins as Brandon Sutter kicked off an onslaught against Martin Brodeur, as Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Rob Bortuzzo netted third-period goals en route to wrapping a big, yellow and black ribbon on a 5-1 drubbing.
New Jersey instantly crashed to earth, wondering where the spunk that constructed a feel-good 3-0-3 start went. Suddenly, one of the questionable teams entering the new season once again was, well, questionable.
Fast forward one week and you are presented with a snap shot of what a wake-up call can do for a squad trying to find its identity. The biggest crisis involved the offense, which consisted of a bevy of ample supporting-cast types but absent of a game-changing superstar to complement Ilya Kovalchuk.
Zach Parise is settled into his new home in Minnesota, while the Devils were pressed with an immediate pressure-packed schedule that presented several hot teams and not so many off-days.
However, David Clarkson has made things seem a lot easier in the Garden State. In fact, the 28-year-old center almost made the Devils completely forget about the potential scoring problems and their lost all-star.
Clarkson was instrumental in helping New Jersey register a 5-0-0 record from Sunday to Sunday, jettisoning to the top of the Eastern Conference with 19 points. He tallied twice in the Devils’ 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday and ran his season totals to nine goals and 15 points.
His contributions were a major factor in the team outscoring its opponents, 16-5, during the current red-hot stretch, signifying this win streak is no figment of luck. No, this bunch is for real. Scratch that — Clarkson’s bunch is for real.
Mind you, Clarkson is not Parise. But it sure helps when you call up the statistics and discover New Jersey’s early season MVP is out-playing the team’s former captain. As of Tuesday night, Parise has notched six goals and 10 points.
Granted, Parise will likely finish with better numbers than Clarkson, and that’s OK. The Devils never needed an all-star to carry them to another Stanley Cup Finals or even a trip to the postseason; they simply needed to find a way to spell the loss of Parise by coming together, somehow, someway.
“It’s like me scoring 30. Do I think people doubted me? Yeah I do,” Clarkson told the Record. “People doubted us. I think there were people that every round weren’t taking us. They thought other teams were going to win.”
Clarkson has been quite a Band Aid. Maybe he’ll cool off and another skater will take over the reigns as the hero. But, on the other hand, maybe Clarkson will duplicate his 30-goal output from a year ago.
“I think people thought maybe last year was an accident for him or a fluke and he’s showing it isn’t,” coach Peter DeBoer told the Record.
You don’t know, and I don’t know. Quite frankly, that’s the fun part.
Winning even makes uncertainty somewhat enjoyable.
Brian Fitzsimmons, a senior writer and editor at MSG Varsity in New Jersey, previously covered hockey at PA SportsTicker and NHL.com. He is the award-winning author of Celtic Pride: How Coach Kevin Boyle Took St. Patrick to the Top of High School Basketball.