When the New Jersey Devils woke up, the team was dead last in the National Hockey League with a record of 10-29-2. Nobody could really understand how a team that was a perennial playoff contender and the Stanley Cup champions in 2003, could have fallen on such hard times.
Well, many people blamed president and GM Lou Lamoriello for hiring John MacLean as head coach and even more blamed Lamoriello for giving Ilya Kovalchuk $100 million over 15 years, but no matter where the media pointed its fingers, it was ultimately at the boss.
Not any more. Saturday night, the Devils drilled the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. It was the third time in 12 days the Devils have beaten the Hurricanes to move from 16 points back of the eighth-place ‘Canes to 10. With 23 games left, the race is on.
“It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?” Devils forward Brian Rolston, told the Newark Star-Ledger. “This is fun.”
It’s also fun to watch.
Since Lamoriello fired MacLean, the Devils have turned around a lost season. With 65-year-old Jacques Lemaire behind the bench (for the third time), the Devils have gone 15-1-2 in their last 18 games. They’ve won seven straight games and improved to 25-30-4 . They’ve moved out of last place, past the Islanders and Ottawa and into 13th in the East. They still have to pass over four teams to get to Carolina, but the Devils are now only three points out of 11th and six points out of ninth.
“At 10 points out, I’m not sure if the Hurricanes are worried about us,” Rolston told the Star-Ledger. “I think they’re looking at Atlanta and other teams closer than us. That’s fine with us.”
That might be true to a point, but I doubt the ‘Canes are ignoring the Devils completely. When you beat a team three times in 12 days, the loser takes notice.
Still, the architect of the turnaround, the outspoken and entertaining Lemaire, still won’t publicly admit that his team has a hope.
“Look at the standings,” he said Saturday night. “Come on.”
Jacques, we are looking at the standings. The Devils now have only three fewer wins than the Hurricanes. The only teams they have to pass to start nipping at Carolina’s heels are Toronto, Florida, Atlanta and Buffalo, none of which would scare the average Devils’ team over the past decade. With Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac playing their best hockey of the year, the Devils are now a legitimate playoff threat. And no matter how you look at it, this turnaround is all about Lemaire.
MacLean was fired two days before Christmas. At the time, to get to 88 points (the average number for an eighth-place finish in the East), the Devils had to go 35-14-0 over the final 49 games. They went 9-22-2 under MacLean. They have gone 16-8-2 under Lemaire (yes, they started 1-7-0 under Jolly Jacques) so there isn’t much room for error. After the slow start under Lemaire, all the experts said the 2010-11 season was over. Those experts might still be right, but Jacques’ Devils aren’t going down without a fight.