What is so different about the Devils now as compared to this time last year?
Beyond the current standings, this team is different this year than it was last year.
“The team has good confidence,” head coach Jacques Lemaire said. “You can see by the plays we were making. The guys don’t panic. Last year, compared to this year, it’s pretty much the same group. But I know at different times last year, we panicked. I don’t see this now…the way they are talking on the bench. I feel they know what to do.”
So how did the team turn around so quickly under Lemaire’s hand? Just ask Henrik Tallinder. Prior to Lemaire’s arrival, the defenseman had a very poor season, just like the rest of the team. He posted an abysmal minus-23 by the time Lemaire arrived. Afterwards, that changed. He registered a plus-10 in 24 games.
“I think it’s more of how the system was before,” Tallinder said. “Now, when we have Jacques, it’s a little bit different. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do. If [there's] a break now, everybody knows where to be.”
“Someone is covering up,” he said of others making a mistake.
That, in itself, is the biggest difference between working with Lemaire and working with John MacLean.
Does this look promising for the Devils? You bet. Since the midway point, their winning percentage has steadily increased to .88o in their 17-1-2 record.
Do they look like the better team? Yes, they definitely do. But they are still a long way to making it into the playoffs. Their fate could be decided by game 82.
In Friday night’s contest, the Devils dominated the puck. The Rangers were only able to generate five shots on goal in each of the first two periods, and only six shots in the final period for a total of 16. The Devils, on the other hand, registered 28 shots on goal, with Ilya Kovalchuk netting the gamewinner on a breakaway at 8:18 in the second period.
“I think we played really well defensively,” Lemaire said after the game. “We had our chances offensively. I was very pleased with our goaltending…good saves at the right moment to keep the lead for us. I think the guys were very good with the puck. There were only a couple of shifts here and there in the game that we didn’t look as organized, but overall, we played very, very solid.”
Compared to the major players from the Rangers, Kovalchuk, despite his issues in the first half of the season, has more goals than any other Ranger this season. For many, that comes as a surprise because the Rangers have major fire power leading their ranks: Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Brian Boyle (who is seeing his greatest season of his career after netting only four goals per season in prior years).
Kovalchuk struggled in the first half of the season to generate any goals. His confidence was lackluster as he scored only 10 goals in 41 games. But, in the last 17 games, he’s scored 11 times.
His confidence is tied into his scoring power, according to Lemaire. He lacked self-confidence in the first half of the season. Lemaire speculated that the reason why may have been a result of the contract issues over the summer and what had happened during the summer of Kovalchuk.
Despite the populace saying that Kovalchuk is overpaid and a bust, Forbes.com does not support that argument. Their listing of the 20 top paid NHL players does not include Kovalchuk. He didn’t make the list this year. On the other bench, Chris Drury (injured) and Henrik Lundqvist did make that list. In fact, Drury made No. 6 on the list. Kovalchuk did not even make the top 20.
The pressure to prove to everyone that you are worth your contract can definitely weigh heavily on anyone’s minds, especially when you have people yelling at you over how much you cost everywhere you turn. But the truth is, there are 20 other guys out there that make way more than Kovalchuk is making, and no one yells at them.
Now that his confidence has returned, Kovalchuk has made his comeback under Lemaire’s system. He, along with the rest of the team, now marches towards the playoffs, taking each step one at a time.
There’s that hope in the back of their mind that they’ll make it, but until then they have to make one right step in the right direction. That only happens in the now.