The Devils provide the opposition in the Canadiens second half of their annual double matinée of Super Bowl weekend and New Jersey has been, of course, a vastly different team since Jacques Lemaire took over from John MacLean on Dec. 23. They’re 8-1-2 in the second half and Lemaire, the former Habs Hall of Fame centre, coach and executive, is largely the reason why.
The 65-year-old Lemaire, who said 10 days ago he won’t coach next season, has coaxed a better game from his team by working on their conditioning and their confidence. He’s also got them playing his usual safe game, with a few extra wrinkles like allowing his defencemen to pinch more than he did in his previous stints with the Devils and the Wild.
The emphasis on team defence has allowed goalies Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg to face far fewer quality chances than they had been. For Brodeur, whose play deteriorated earlier this season, the return to defensive basics has allowed him to rebuild his confidence now that he’s seeing fewer second shots and shots from prime scoring areas.
That doesn’t mean he’s back to being the Brodeur of old entirely, however. Against the Rangers in his last outing on Thursday, he had some shaky moments, including the first goal by Ryan Callahan (video) which beat him over the shoulder stick side as he went down too early.
Brodeur will be in goal on Sunday and against the Habs his lifetime
record is 39-16-5 with a 1.75 goals-against average, .933 save
nine shutouts. In Montreal,
Brodeur is 16-8-1 with a 1.52 GAA, .945 save percentage and five
shutouts, including a 3-0 win on Oct. 21.
Brodeur was injured the
last time the teams played, on Dec. 2, a 5-1 win for the Habs in which
they scored on two of their first three shots and chased Hedberg after
less than two minutes in favor of Mike McKenna, who went the rest of the
Hedberg was in goal Friday for a 4-3 overtime loss to Florida, a game in which Lemaire thought his team played well, but only in spurts and were victimized by “mental mistakes.” He said New Jersey “deserved to lose that game” and wondered if they might be a bit tired.
Those mistakes included the defence backing in on the game winner by Rostislav Olesz (video) and playing too relaxed on the power play; Lemaire criticized his team for not backing each other up when there’s a loose puck with the man advantage.
The Devils have been brutal on the power play since Lemaire took over (6-for-56) even though he often uses five forwards on the PP unit. The Panthers’ tying goal was a shorthanded tally by Mike Santorelli which came after Ilya Kovalchuk flubbed a pass at the point (video).
But generally, Lemaire has been quite pleased with his team’s play in the last few weeks. Kovalchuk, who the Devils acquired a year ago Feb. 4 from Atlanta, is playing more like the Kovalchuk of old, as he showed with the game-opening goal against the Rangers (video). Brian Rolston, who was on waivers not long ago, has also been rejuvenated with 5 goals and 8 assists in the last 11 games, including a ripping goal that ended up as the game-winner against the Rangers (video) and chased Henrik Lundqvist in the second period.
And on defence, their two main off-season acquisitions, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov have been playing more like the guys the Devils thought they were getting than they did earlier in the campaign. After going pointless and being a minus-10 in 24 straight games, Tallinder over the last 11 games has a goal and five assists and is plus-8. Volchenkov is again the shot blocking machine he was in Ottawa.
One can go down the Devils roster and find turnaround stories everywhere in the last 11 games. They haven’t lost two straight in regulation in about a month, so they are not the pushovers they were in the first half. The playoffs are still a distant dream — even with their current hot streak they remain last in the East and 18 points south of the cutoff line. But if they keep this up, New Jersey will have a lot to say about who keeps playing after the regular season ends.