Desperate Devils still chasing 'unbelievable' goal

Team has been NHL's best after digging huge hole, but is it too late?



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Patrik Elias is the New Jersey Devils' all-time leading scorer, a graceful, gritty winger with 330 career goals, two Stanley Cup rings and three NHL All-Star appearances.

And yet, he keeps a perfectly straight face when explaining why he feels that merely getting the Devils into the playoffs this year -- in a league that invites 16 of 30 teams -- would rank among his most memorable achievements.

"It would be unbelievable," Elias said before New Jersey's 3-0 shutout Sunday of host Columbus. "It would say a lot about the character of the guys here to turn around like this. It would say a lot about this franchise. ... Really, it would be right up there with any kind of accomplishment. Who else can say they've been a part of something like this?"

Nobody, actually.

The Devils, the Penguins' opponent tonight at Consol Energy Center, are taking aim at the greatest comeback in NHL history: On Jan. 8, they were 10-29-2, owners of the league's worst record and 27 points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Since then, they are 24-6-2 and March 15 became the league's first team to reach .500 after spending as many as 67 games of the season under that mark.

Most amazing, their 34-35-4 record has them nine points out of a playoff spot.

Reaching that will be a huge challenge, with only nine games left and four teams to leapfrog. But who would rule it out?

The fall

Imagine the Steelers suddenly losing their minds.

Imagine Art Rooney II pushing for the acquisition of a player who does not remotely fit the team's model, then signing that player to a two-decade, nine-figure extension that would wreak salary-cap havoc.

From there, imagine the failure.

The Devils are not the Steelers, but they and the Detroit Red Wings have been the NHL's most consistently successful franchises since the Devils won the first of three Stanley Cups in 1995, and they built that foundation by being conservative in every way. On the ice, they have been more defensive than any team in the sport and made the neutral-zone trap the league's vogue system. Off the ice, they have been careful spenders, preferring to raise talent internally.

That all changed last year.

Jeff Vanderbeek, a former Wall Street executive and lifelong fan of the Devils who bought the franchise seven years ago, was known to have pushed hard in February 2010 for general manager Lou Lamoriello to trade for gifted but enigmatic winger Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta. Vanderbeek coveted a marquee player to help sell tickets in the team's new arena in downtown Newark.

Lamoriello, the league's most tenured and maybe its most respected general manager, pulled that trigger, which had heads scratching around the league.

After the season, Kovalchuk became a free agent, and Vanderbeek wanted so badly to keep him that the sides agreed to a wild, 17-year contract -- paying Kovalchuk, now 27, until the age of 43 -- worth $102 million. The NHL rejected the contract for circumventing the salary cap, and it was reworked to an almost equally wild 15 years and $100 million.

The Devils had just as big a change at coach, with defensive wizard Jacques Lemaire retiring last summer and assistant John MacLean getting promoted. MacLean immediately had the Devils skating more aggressively for the first time in a generation, thinking attack-first.

All of it bombed.

The Kovalchuk contract put the Devils so close to the cap that they were able to dress only 15 skaters -- three below the limit -- when two players were hurt and another suspended Oct. 11 for a 3-1 loss to the Penguins. The bench looked like that of a junior varsity team.

Kovalchuk was so dreadful in the early going that MacLean made him a healthy scratch for an Oct. 23 home game.

There were injuries, too: Martin Brodeur, one of the great goaltenders in NHL history, was hampered by elbow pain. Zach Parise, New Jersey's top goal-scorer the previous four seasons, was lost to knee surgery.

Some urged Lamoriello, for the first time anyone could recall, to sell at the trade deadline. He did not.

"If you believe in what you're doing and what you can accomplish, you don't think everything is wrong," Lamoriello said. "Starting completely over is the easy way out."

On the morning of Jan. 8, the Devils' 12-year streak of making the playoffs seemed an afterthought. So did their 18-year streak with a winning record, tied with Detroit for the longest active streak in professional sports. (That has run concurrently, by the way, with the Pirates??? 18-year losing streak that is the longest in sports history.)

The veterans, thoroughly unaccustomed to losing, took it hard.

"There was frustration more than anything," Elias said. "We kept trying to find a way to get back, and it just never happened. It felt like we always found a way to lose, game after game. When you're not successful, it's normal to feel down, whether you're a rookie or in your 20th year."

The rise

Johan Hedberg knows something about stunning revivals. He was San Jose's fifth-string goaltender when the Penguins acquired him late in the 2000-01 season, and the man nicknamed "Moose" -- for his previous employer, the AHL's Manitoba Moose -- would lead the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final before falling to Brodeur and the Devils.

"The ride of a lifetime," Hedberg called it back then.

This, he now says, might be just as much fun.

"At Christmastime, we didn't think we were going to be at this level," Hedberg said. "It was tough. I've been on losing teams before, but this was a different feeling. The expectations are really high here. And that's why now, what we've done since then ... it's just a great feeling."

Hedberg has had plenty to do with that, going 13-11-2 with a 2.34 goals-against average in extended playing time because of Brodeur's injury. The Devils also have benefited from an awakening by Kovalchuk, who has a team-best 27 goals, and a team-best 53 points from Elias.

But the biggest difference has been behind the bench.

Lamoriello fired MacLean Dec. 23 and brought back Lemaire for a third stint as his coach. Lamoriello labeled Lemaire, now 65, an interim coach and described his primary mission as "seeing where we're at." Lemaire apparently liked very little of what he saw, publicly blasting the players' conditioning level, questioning their belief in each other and, of course, switching back to a defensive posture.

There were seven losses in Lemaire's first eight games, but soon, the Devils were the Devils again.

Ask Lemaire now about the team's belief, and he smiles like a proud grandfather.

"Confidence comes from winning," Lemaire said. "It comes from how you're going to work, your teammates, how they're going to help you in different situations. You start to play and, as soon as you get a little better, you build up that confidence and keep going."

But did he envision this?

"Never."

It helped, the players say, that Lemaire adjusted his system to the talent at hand: The Devils still live off defense -- they held Washington to 15 shots last week, then Columbus to 13 -- but their overall methodology resembles the Penguins' all-out puck pursuit in all three zones.

"We have five guys up, five guys back, and that's what Pittsburgh does well," Elias said. "At the same time, Jacques is encouraging guys to make plays. Make a short pass. Get creative. Before, it seemed like we were just chasing the puck around."

"Jacques put that structure back into our team, and we got our confidence," Hedberg said. "It's so much more fun now."

Fun, but hardly done. A 4-1 loss Tuesday in Boston hurt the cause quite a bit.

"For us, every game will be do or die," Kovalchuk said. "We can't lose two in a row."


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at the DK on Pittsburgh Sports blog on PG+. First Published March 25, 2011 4:00 AM


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