Building on the Positive

It’s difficult for anyone to watch a team notoriously known as being a winning team throw away most of their season. It’s even worse when you look at the NHL standings and see that team sitting dead last in the league.

That happens to be the Devils this season. As the halfway mark approaches of the 2010-11 season, the Devils’ record is 9-25-2. To put this record into perspective, 27 of their 36 games were losses. That’s a hard pill to swallow for any hockey fan, player, team or management.

The year before, they won the Atlantic Division and were the sixth best team in the league. Every player in the league defined the Devils as a winning team. Historically, that’s who they were.

In recent months, many opposing teams described the Devils as being ‘dead,’ having ‘no momentum,’ or ‘no life’ in them. It is interesting to watch as the players use these descriptions. They look like they can’t believe they are saying that about this franchise, considering they always believed the Devils were a winning team. To them, it is a weird thing to say.

Jacques Lemaire’s analysis of the Devils after 32 games has also not been promising. After 36 games, it would seem that the team lacks endurance. They are not in top form. By the time the final period rolls around, the players are spent. But as all coaches know, those players should be able to get through that third period.

Even when it comes to the situation with Brian Rolston being put waivers, The Star Ledger’s Rich Chere described it as just another player not being in shape: “Jacques Lemaire, who took over for John MacLean, does not feel Rolston is in top shape. That, combined with his salary, were his undoing.”

Thirty-six games into the season and the Devils are not in shape.How does that happen?

Fans and critics have pointed to Martin Brodeur as not being at the top of his game.  They’ve started trade rumors sending Brodeur to anywhere but the Devils, and some even suggested that he retire to maintain some form of dignity.

During a recent practice, Brodeur visually displayed his frustrations. According to Tom Gulitti (NorthJersey.com):

“Martin Brodeur was at one end of the rink and was having a tough time as the players came out of the corner one at a time and fired shots on him. A few more were going in than Brodeur liked and his frustration seemed to build with each one.

Then, Patrik Elias came out of the right corner with the puck, cut in front and beat Brodeur with a shot that went under this blocker. That was final straw for Brodeur, who turned and slammed his stick multiple times against the crossbar and the right post leaving it shattered in pieces.”

After the game Wednesday night, coach Lemaire said that Brodeur ‘looked better.’

With very few players being in top form (Elias is one of the few that Lemaire finds to be in shape), how does this happen after 32 games? MacLean ran the players hard during practice. Lemaire has been running them even harder.

To him, these players are not in top form to play professional hockey. The rest of the league is ahead of them in that department. The Devils have a lot of catching up to do.

It makes one question what in the world the Devils have been doing all season long that they would lack endurance to play in top form through 60 minutes of hockey after 36 games this season.

“It’s not only practices because you can get in shape with practices,” Lemaire told Gulitti. “The thing is you stop pushing. As a player in practice you have to push till it hurts and if you don’t do that, you’re not in the best shape possible. It’s got to hurt. So, before it hurts, you stop pushing, what does it do? You get out of shape.”

But that was then. This is now.

With Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello making the difficult decision to fire coach MacLean and re-hire Lemaire, the team has finally started to resemble their former selves. Unfortunately for Lemaire, even though he was only gone a few months, he has more to work with than he realized he was going to be working with when he arrived in Newark last week.

If Lemaire is anything like last season, it’s going to be a while before the Devils see an off day. When there’s not a game, there’s practice, practice and more practice. There are no days off until they’ve earned it.

In the 3-1 loss against the Rangers Wednesday, the changes Lemaire implemented in two team practices went into effect. The defense has been at their absolute worst all season long.

Henrik Tallinder played his best game of the season against the Rangers. He did a lot of positive things for the first time.  He was more physical and even made more shots on the net (two to be exact).

On the fourth line, recent call-up Tim Sestito was doing a lot of positive things. Even when his linemate had problems, he was able to find the puck and quickly correct the problem. That is what smart hockey and teamwork are all about. You help your linemate when they make mistakes by making the right move the next time. That is what it means to pick your teammate up.

Sestito also led the team in hits on Wednesday with six solid hits.

But the one hit that took top prize for the Devils was Matthew Corrente’s hit on Sean Avery. For the Devils, this was probably more of interest to everyone for the simple fact that it was sweet justice for the Devils and their fans to see an Avery wipeout.

As for the power forwards, Ilya Kovalchuk and Elias did wonders together on the ice. When Kovalchuk weaves from one place to the next and maneuvers from one end of the ice to the other, Elias is the only Devil that can keep up and anticipate where his teammate will end up tossing the puck. Perhaps the two need to work together a few extra shifts every night.

“It’s still a little bit of luck also,” Elias said. “If we play with this effort, it will be okay. Hopefully, a little bit of luck will turn on our side.”

Also of note, rookie Mattias Tedenby has headed straight to the top line with Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. Their line was the only line to generate the lone goal by the Devils.

Rangers forward Brian Boyle has come into his own this season. In past seasons, he has only scored four goals in each year of his NHL career. Boyle is currently second in the team in scoring trailing only Brandon Dubinsky, who has 16 goals on the year. His tally 47 seconds after Zajac’s goal gave him his 14th goal of the season.

Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival got a lucky bounce off of Andy Greene in the second period to give the Rangers the 2-1 lead at 13:22 in the second period.

“It went off my glove and went right in,” Greene said of the goal. “It went off my arm there.”

The most disappointing moment came in the final 5.5 seconds of the game. After the Devils called a timeout, the puck dropped and the classic Devils breakdown began.

“What killed me…we’re on a faceoff,” Lemaire said. “The puck is right there. They let the guy go. He shoots it in an empty net.”

Henrik Lundqvist delivered a stellar performance against the Devils as he stopped 43 of 44 shots. Brodeur faced 25 shots and stopped 23.

The Devils pushed the Rangers hard as they delivered their best performance yet this season. Even though they lost, they have to focus on the positives they created from that game and move forward.

“We’re just pushing, shooting the puck a lot, putting a lot of shots on the net…we created better chances off of that,” Elias said. “Not every night you’re going to get the odd man rushes…so even if the team plays tight and plays well defensively, that’s what you have to do.”

“It’s tough in creating confidence when you’re not winning,” Dainius Zubrus added. “If we played the way we did in the first period for 60 minutes, I thought we would have given ourselves a better chance. If we can stand up for 60 minutes, we’ll give ourselves the best chance.”

“There [have] been games where we score one goal and we probably don’t deserve to score more,” Zajac said. “Tonight, I felt the other way. We scored one, but we definitely deserved to get more than one goal tonight.

“We have to take some sort of positive out of the game,” he continued. “It’s frustrating not winning again. We played pretty good. We almost put up 50 shots. We have to take some kind of positive out of it.”

Arnott’s Extra Two

Jason Arnott received an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct after complaining to the official about a holding call assessed against him at 5:41 in the third period. Arnott responded that he never cursed at him.

“I should have just went to the box,” he said. “It was stupid on my part.”

The Devils were able to kill off the four minute penalty. The Rangers are 15th in the league on the power play. Even though they worked on the power play at practice recently, they were still not able to generate anything.

As for the Devils power play unit, of the eight minutes of power play, Kovalchuk was on for all eight minutes.

Rolston Clears Re-Entry Waivers

Rolston cleared re-entry waivers and will return to the Devils roster. No teams picked him up by the noon deadline today.

Nick Palmieri was also recalled from Albany today.

The Devils host the Atlanta Thrashers on New Year’s Eve starting at 5 p.m. Following the game, fans can stick around to watch the fireworks display over Prudential Center.

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