Saturday, 19 March 2011

Nail In The Coffin?

With their loss to the Washington Capitals tonight, it might be a case of "too little, too late" for the New Jersey Devils on this season. I'm not taking anything away from what the Devils have done over the second half of this season in making an inspired run towards the playoffs that seemed impossible at the start of December. With injuries and a horrendous start to the season hanging around the Devils' necks like a noose, they found a way to make everyone a little nervous when "NJD" showed up on the calendar. I have to think that two men were highly responsible for this turn-around, although the total team game played by the Devils over the last three months has been a remarkable 180-degree change from how they were playing earlier this season.

The first man that had an immediate and clear impact on the team was Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire took over for head coach John MacLean on December 23, 2010 after MacLean had led the team to a dreadful 9-22-2 start. There was no joy in Mudville as Ilya Kovalchuk had begun to show some disdain for the way things were going by not showing up to team meetings or arriving late.

Enter Lemaire who immediately went to work in building the Devils up from the blueline out. With Martin Brodeur needing a little time off to have some war wounds heal, Lemaire began to give Johan Hedberg a little more support by having the defencemen recommit to the defensive zone.

No longer were the Devils concerned with that long, risky breakout pass that could change a game. Instead, the wingers were being asked to play a little deeper to help out the defencemen - something the Devils hadn't seen this season. Lemaire asked the wingers to jump back into the play and accept passes near the center ice area, allowing the shorter passes to be much more successful. Suddenly, the added movement and passes caused openings in their opposition's defensive schemes. This gave the Devils a chance to create some odd-man rushes as well as allowing some of the stars, such as Kovalchuk, the room to create with their immense skill.

Coaching, as it seems, played a very large part in the Devils' successes in the second half of the season. But that's not the whole story because the most famous Devils goaltender of all-time missed a significant chunk of time due to injury. As you may be aware, if you're a backup goaltender for the Devils, you normally have the best seat in the house to watch the game.

Enter Johan Hedberg. Hedberg has had varying success throughout his NHL career after getting his big break with the Pittsburgh Penguins after tearing through the IHL with the Manitoba Moose. Since then, "Moose" has played with the Canucks, Stars, Thrashers, and Devils, occasionally serving as a starter, but finding himself on the bench most often. Where Hedberg shines, though, is his ability to play at a high standard without getting a lot of starts.

The only season in which Hedberg has posted a sub-.500 record was 2007-08 with the Thrashers when he was 14-15-3. That's right: one game under .500. Every season since he got his break with the Penguins, he has posted a winning record. That's a pretty big achievement, especially when you consider that he's been a backup for most of his career and when you consider he spent parts of four seasons with the Thrashers.

Hedberg has gotten help from Lemaire's defence-first system and the commitment to the system that the Devils have shown in buying in to this defence-first mindset. But there's no question that he still has to make the saves, and he has done that. In 31 games this season with the Devils, Hedberg has a 2.34 GAA and three shutouts - pretty good totals for a "backup" goaltender on any NHL team.

Unfortunately for Devils fans, tonight's loss to Washington really turns the heat up on the Devils as they fall further from the playoffs with every game that passes with a loss. For all that Lemaire and Hedberg have done to turn this team's fortunes around, it appears they can't erase the deficit they built in the first few months of the season.

I've heard people say "it's not how start, but how you finish", but, in the Devils' case, it is certainly all about how they started this season. And it appears it has everything to do with how they'll finish - on the outside, looking in.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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