New Jersey won both of its games this past weekend, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night by a score of 4-2, and the Vancouver Canucks yesterday afternoon 4-3 in overtime. The victories are part of a surge that the Devils have put together, winning eight out of the last ten games, and now sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings.
This is frankly unexpected after the team went 0-3-1 to start the season, a time when one could have said they would have been competitive only at a lower level of hockey. The offense was anemic and the defense just could not keep up with their NHL rivals. But something turned around and, by mid October, New Jersey entered Madison Square Garden, and defeated the Rangers at home. Since then, the Devils have been facing competitive teams and beating them, at home and away.
So, the question is, what happened and is it sustainable? Is this 8-2-0 surge a realistic reflection of the team’s ability or is it just a fluke that will end badly when the team hits a losing skid?
First, let me say that, no team in the current NHL environment can sustain 80% victory statistics throughout a season. But after watching New Jersey face two very decent Western Division rivals this weekend, its clear that this team is moving in the right direction and could easily be back in the playoffs this year.
Not only has the offense picked up, but the team is starting to play very smart hockey, using its strengths and preying upon its opponents weaknesses. So, how does this happen so quickly after looking like an ECHL contender for the first few games?
First, the current victory streak has coincided with the team’s top center, Travis Zajac, catching fire. With 11 points in nine games, including three points over the weekend, Zajac is one of the top producers in the league. But more than his numbers, it is how he is being used by Head Coach John Hynes, and the fact that Zajac has bought into the new system so quickly, that is so impressive. Hynes is new this season and has Zajac playing in all situations. In addition, Zajac has very good chemistry with new linemate Kyle Palmieri, a chemistry that has increased the confidence and offensive production of both players (with and without each other on the ice). In fact, Zajac and Palmieri each scored the game winning goal in this past weekend’s games.
The team itself is now an opportunistic one, defensively responsible in its own zone, but always looking for chances to take the puck the other way. And that brings me to my second point and is why I do not think that this surge is a fluke. This is a very well coached team. The current roster may be devoid of highly paid superstar skaters, but these skaters have learned a system that requires them to solidly position themselves in their own zone and quickly take advantage of opportunities going the other way. The goal on last night’s penalty kill was a great example of this. Adam Henrique and Zajac worked together to strip the Canucks of the puck, get control and skate quickly in to get the shorthanded goal. It was quick, hard work by two creative offensive threats, who were looking for an opportunity to score despite being down a man.
Not only is the team well coached, but the scouts are doing their job too. On Friday night, it might have looked like the Blackhawks netminder, Corey Crawford, was just having a bad night. But part of that bad night was that the Devils’ scouts must have noticed that Crawford has a weakness close in to his body on the glove side. The Devil’s shooters were taking advantage of this, executing what must have been a plan to exploit what was perceived as a problem for the goalie. By the second period, Crawford was gone, replaced by Scott Darling.
Noticing a goaltender’s weakness is a scout’s job and is not unusual, but it was how the Devils executed on that knowledge that was so impressive on Friday night. Put together, the coaching and scouting staff behind the scenes and the players on the ice are all in synch right now. That is the reason for the surge, and although it will be impossible for an 80% win percentage to continue, the Devils are not a fluke and could easily be a playoff team come April of 2016.