By Ryan Jahnke
The past few weeks haven’t been that easy for the New Jersey Devils, or their fans. At their worst, the team looked inept and lost, and even at their best Jersey just couldn’t buy a goal. During that pitiful six-game stretch, and clunker or two before and after, fans cringed as they watched the offense ring more posts than they could light lamps, saw their defense forget all the fundamentals of positioning, and looked on in horror as their Ace in the Hole, Johan Hedberg, struggled so mightily that many started to wonder if it would be possible to stop the bleeding. Or, at least slow it until Martin Brodeur returned from injury.
It wasn’t too long ago that Devils fans were calling this squad one of the greatest teams that have ever donned the Red and Black. More recently you heard much more fear than hope. The way people were talking, you’d think that nothing short of the very-early debut of Reid Boucher, several blockbuster trades, and the debut of a new and improved Cyborg Brodeur (which I do believe Lou is working on in a lab below the arena) would right this ship.
Thankfully, for sanity’s sake, the real Devils showed up on Wednesday night and trounced rival Philadelphia 5 – 2. From the drop of the puck, New Jersey played their game continually pushing the Flyers back until the dam broke and all those goals they were missing came rushing out. It was a game that everyone wearing red needed to see to remind themselves of what this team can truly do when they’re even close to their best.
This, like all great stretches in the New Jersey system, was a team effort, and the renewed hope that it brings can be seen from all over the Devils’ roster. Veterans like Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, and yes, even Moose, all stepped up last night to pull their team through, and role-players like Ryan Carter and Peter Harrold have markedly improved the forecheck since their returns to the lineup and are showing why they are so vital to this team’s success. And clearly, you can’t say enough about the youth movement in Newark. Whether you’re talking about the true kids like Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson, or just those like Stephen Gionta who are young in NHL experience, they always seem to find their way to the score sheet. No situation seems to confound them. 5-on-5 time, power play, or even shorthanded. Every player that Pete DeBoer trusted with that ice time rewarded him in last night’s statement game.
But, maybe it’s more than last night. If we’re going to be optimistic, let’s look at the past few, even though the Carolina game makes that a little tough. The Devils’ terrific start was marred by a collapse that you could argue started on February 12th against those same Hurricanes. From that day until March 6th without franchise player Martin Brodeur, New Jersey could only manage six points. While there were some bright spots here and there, the bottom line was brutal. March 5thagainst Tampa Bay was rock bottom. The Devs came in expecting to use the Lightning as a launch pad back to form, and, in a way, they did. March 7th against Buffalo broke the pattern, and March 10th against the Jets looked like it got the Devils back into their game.
Even Moose has found his swagger since that shelling against Tampa, not to mention the several beforehand. He looked great against the Sabres, was the true star of the game against Winnipeg, and completely shut the Flyers down. After 10 straight starts, most of them pretty taxing, I can’t believe that he can still stand, let alone play the way he did last night. Marty doesn’t even start 10 in a row.
Last night’s win over Philly did a lot for this team and its fans. Everybody can slow down, take a breath, and stop worrying that the sky is going to fall. While nothing can erase a slide like the one that they’ve endured, a game like that over a rival gives them a chance to move forward, and to be thankful for that nice head start that they built up.
***Quick Looks Forward and Back***
This weekend marks a march on Philly, and a Saturday showdown against first place Montreal. Don’t expect the same lackluster effort from the Flyers on Friday. They’re backed into a corner and defending their home ice; it will be a tougher match. And Montreal won’t make things any easier. They’re no fluke, and they’ve figured out that ridding your team of Scott Gomez is a great way to get better on the fly.
One Devil I’m keeping a close eye on this weekend is Andrei Loktionov. This is a man that I, and everyone else for that matter, thought might make a nice addition…someday. I mean, the Devs got him from the Kings for a bag of pucks and an expired book of coupons. They couldn’t wait to get their hands on Jersey’s 5th round pick. When I initially analyzed the trade, I knew from those who played with him that he had great vision, and a high hockey IQ, but I never thought we’d see anything like this, or anywhere near this fast. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.
Also look for Travis Zajac and especially David Clarkson to break out of their current funks this weekend. They looked hungry to join in on the fun last night, and were stymied by the post and some rare but terrific second-efforts by Ilya Bryzgalov. They’re coming around.
One Devil I’m going to miss this weekend, besides Marty who is getting closer and closer, is going to be Dainius Zubrus. They have plenty of guys who can provide some of what Zubs gives us, but none can make up for the totality of what New Jersey lost when he was taken out of the lineup. He plays as big as anyone, and yet he has better hands than anyone at his size not named Kovy. If the Devils are going to live and die by the fore check, they need Zubrus. Can’t wait to see him back out there.