NEWARK, N.J. -- Ever since the days of Eddie Shore, the NHL has sought the balance between physical play, scoring and defense. With the general mangers meeting in Florida this week, the debate rages on concerning checks to the head specifically and play safety in general. As the history has shown, innovations abound, and this latest go-round will no doubt yield advances in rules and equipment modifications. Yet, some things never seem to change -- like the competitive consistency of Jacques Lemaire-coached teams.
Back behind the bench of the New Jersey Devils since just before Christmas, Lemaire has his team on an improbable push for the playoffs. He took over a club that was reeling at 9-22-2 and promptly went 1-7 in his first eight games back at the helm. After a 10-29-2 first half, Lemaire's charges are now an astounding 22-3-2 since. The record for most points in the second half of a season is 74 by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings -- a mark that the Devils have a chance to eclipse. They also have a shot at the postseason, which given their first half woes, is simply unbelievable. They are eight points out of the final playoff berth with 14 games remaining. A regulation win over Atlanta on Tuesday night could see them climb two more teams is their ethereal ascent.
Some elements that have long been hallmark to Devils' hockey are back, namely tight defensive hockey, discipline without the puck, and rock solid, big save netminding from Martin Brodeur. The all-time winningest goalie in the NHL is 14-1-1 in his past 16 starts, while surrendering a paltry 1.81 goals-against over that stretch. Ilya Kovalchuk -- he of the mega-sized offseason free agent contract -- has produced 24 in his past 25 games. More than that, though, Kovalchuk is notching big goals, with nine game-winners to date, second only to Alex Ovechkin's 10. The Devils brought Kovalchuk in to be a difference-maker and under Lemaire he has been exactly that.
Behind it all is the wily veteran coach who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995. He returned last season and guided them to the Atlantic Division title, only to retire after a first-round ouster at the hand of the eventual Eastern Conference Champs, the Philadelphia Flyers. Lemaire's blueprint for success sometimes overshadows his ability as a bench boss to adjust in-game to his opponent's tendencies. He's a master at the matchup game and will chase a line vs. line situation relentlessly. Also overlooked is his innate feel for each game. He brings vitality to the necessary adjustments that are needed from one period to the next. Those traits certainly have served his teams well over the years and maybe never more so than right now on this run.
And now, maybe more than ever, coaching matters in the NHL. As Lemaire himself put it recently, "All teams are the same in this cap era. They are sound defensively. They have structure to their game. The difference is not too great between teams and it comes down to the skill players."
True, but maybe it comes down to coaching and the ability to get the most out of rosters that aren't all that different under the current NHL salary cap guidelines. Maybe that line is finer than ever between a coach playing a certain way based on the limitations of his roster and getting results accordingly.
Well, Lemaire has been getting unprecedented results this season. And while the old coach might not be able to enjoy the run while he is immersed in it -- "How much fun can it be? You win one night and the next moment you are getting ready for the next game," he shrugs -- the locals have taken notice. On two separate occasions over the past two days here in New Jersey, unsolicited enthusiasm came my way from folks who are excited by the Devils' turnaround. That might not seem like much, but this is a franchise that has three Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters. The team has consistently been a playoff participant and legitimate Cup contender. Still, this second-half run has caused a stir and an interest all its own. The Jersey cop who wanted to talk hockey confessed, "I'm a Philly fan, but you have to give it to the Devils. It's unbelievable what they're doing." And from the cabbie, who wondered, "What is going on with them? Same team that couldn't win a game, now nobody can beat them. I'm mostly a basketball guy, but this Devils team right now is ridiculous."
Indeed. And Jacques Lemaire deserves much of the credit.