Devils' Due

With its hard-nosed G.M. as the new bench boss and its star scorer healthy, New Jersey is hot again after a rocky start
February 06, 2006

There isirrefutable photographic evidence of New Jersey Devils general manager LouLamoriello smiling in public, which, in its way, is as stunning as a NationalGeographic gatefold of the Loch Ness Monster playing gin rummy with Sasquatch.The sighting occurred after a Jan. 21 shootout win over the New York Islanders."Somebody said I was hurting my image," says Lamoriello, who dresseswith the sobriety of an undertaker. "But I was so happy for [Zach Parise,who scored the winning goal], a young fellow who tries so hard, who's had somuch pressure on him. The unfortunate thing is, you forget where youare."

In Lamoriello's19 years as the Devils' G.M., he has built three Stanley Cup--winning teams aswell as a no-nonsense reputation. So after New Jersey got off to a dismal start(finishing December with a 16-18-5 record and in 10th place in the East) andcoach Larry Robinson's health forced him to resign on Dec. 19, Lamoriello tookit upon himself to step in as bench boss. Though he says he's still seeking areplacement, the search seems to be proceeding as rapidly as O.J.'s hunt forthe real killers. Lamoriello is loath to interfere with a good thing, anddespite two scoreless games in two nights in Florida last week, the Devilsearned standings points in 11 of their past 13 games, winning 10 of them.

In his currentincarnation Lamoriello, a respected coach at Providence College from 1968 to'83, is coach as CEO--offering individual counsel to his players whileoverseeing his lieutenants. Even when the Devils lost five of their first sevenwith Lamoriello as coach, players say he was relentlessly positive. "Hekeeps guys accountable," says goalie Martin Brodeur, who last week signed asix-year, $31.2 million contract. "I thought it would be [awkward] atfirst, but Lou's attention to detail is amazing. He doesn't miss much."

New Jersey did,however, miss Patrik Elias, who, after returning on Jan. 3 from a bout ofhepatitis A, led the Devils to a nine-game winning streak and had 16 points inhis first 12 games. New Jersey, now seventh in the conference, has a dangerousNo. 1 line in winger Brian Gionta, center Scott Gomez and Elias--"the mostunderrated guy in the league," says Gomez. Meanwhile Brodeur, stilladjusting to the mandated smaller catching glove, has been helped by old-schoolNew Jersey defense, which was absent during the first 10 weeks of the season;through Sunday he had four shutouts in his last 13 games and had lowered hisgoals-against average to 2.58.

"ObviouslyMr. Lamoriello--Lou--is an intimidating man in the hockey world," saysGomez. "When a presence like that is on the bench, it gets yourattention."


Scoring Rise inThe East

The WesternConference has holstered its reputation for run-and-gun hockey. Through Sundaynine of the NHL's 10 leading scorers were from the East. The other, San Jose'sJoe Thornton, had scored 33 of his 67 points in Boston before being traded. Thebalance may have been tilted by new coach Bryan Murray's loosening the reins inOttawa, the offensive talent in Atlanta and the presence of rookie AlexanderOvechkin in Washington, but Thornton sees another change. "Some teams inthe West play a 1-4," he says of the passive forechecking scheme, firstcousin of the offense-stifling neutral-zone trap. "You don't see it as muchin the East."

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TWO PHOTOSLOU CAPOZZOLA (2) ST.PATRIK Elias sparked a Devils winning streak and made Lamoriello (inset) ahappy man.