|The return of the New Jersey Devils' Jaime Langenbrunner was just the spark the team needed.|
“As you get older you realize more and more that the best leadership is always by example, and that’s what Jamie does,” Sutter said. “It’s just not a coincidence that with him in the lineup, things changed. There’s a reason why it has happened.”
Langenbrunner’s return from sports hernia surgery seven games ago has done wonders for a team that was in desperate need of a spark.
Without Langenbrunner, who sat out all of training camp and the first portion of this season after having surgery in September, the Devils struggled to score, especially on the power play. Their defense, including the backchecking, was lacking. As a result, they were 7-8-2 and battling to stay out of the Atlantic Division cellar.
With Langenbrunner, who returned Nov. 14, the Devils have four power-play goals in the last four games. Langenbrunner, who plays the point on the extra-man unit, has assisted on each one, and has two goals and seven assists in his seven games.
As a result, the Devils enter tonight’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens on a five-game winning streak that has them tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference and just four points out of first place in the Atlantic Division.
“We know what Jamie brings to the table, and that’s his work ethic every night and his experience,” Devils center Patrik Elias said. “He makes plays, and on the power play he’s important because he’s got a great shot. Yeah, you obviously get better with him in the lineup and just his presence in the locker room.
“He’s calm. He keeps everybody in check. We needed it.”
While the Devils were struggling to adapt to Sutter and his new aggressive forechecking style, Langenbrunner was in the press box, frustrated and watching. But it wasn’t hard for him to keep perspective. Sitting by his side was defenseman Colin White, who was out with a career-threatening eye injury after taking a puck to the face in practice Sept. 19.
“It was frustrating because, obviously, I had the whole summer where (the surgery) could have been taken care of, but having Whitey have his eye injury put things into perspective,” Langenbrunner said. “I knew how close I was to coming back. He had all that uncertainty.”
Langenbrunner made an immediate splash in his return, scoring both goals in a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers. He’s quickly learned that his game perfectly suits Sutter’s style.
“There is not a lot of glitz to (my game); it is pretty much straight-forward, and that fits in with this coach,” Langenbrunner said. “Just make the right decisions. It’s the right way to play effective hockey.”
Langenbrunner’s simple approach, not to mention his versatility, has served him well in New Jersey since being traded there by Dallas late in the 2001-02 season. He’s spent time on the second and third lines, including long stretches with John Madden and Jay Pandolfo on the checking unit. Last season, he had excellent chemistry while playing with youngsters Travis Zajac and Zach Parise on the Devils’ second scoring line, behind Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
For the past five games, Langenbrunner has been on Zajac’s right with Dainius Zubrus on left wing. Since the unit was put together Nov. 17 at Philadelphia -- the same night Martin Brodeur won his 500th game -- it has flourished.
Zubrus, who at one point this season was a minus-8, has two goals, three assists and is a plus-4. Zajac has two assists and is a plus-2.
“Would it have helped us to have him in the lineup instead of sitting in the stands? Absolutely,” Sutter said. “But when a player is injured, you go to the game thinking; ‘How can I make myself better so when I do get back in there I help our team get better?’ It’s not just playing. It’s about mindset and helping them in the room and helping them prepare. It’s how you practice against them and compete against them. You’re always trying to make the other guy better, and that’s what Jamie does.”
Which begs the question: Will Langenbrunner eventually wear the Devils’ “C”?
Langenbrunner said he can see himself in that role because of how he defines what a captain should be.
“By asking him to be a leader and to make sure everybody is together and to lead by example,” Langenbrunner said. “I have always done that to a certain extent. I’m not the most talkative, but I do my thing.”
No Devil has the letter stitched on his jersey right now, but the rumor was Sutter and the Devils were waiting for Langenbrunner to return before offering it to him.
But no word has come down as of yet, and, as it currently stands, Zubrus, Elias and Gionta all wear the “A” as alternate captains. When Elias sat out a recent game with the flu, Madden wore the “A”.
“To be honest, I don’t worry about it,” Langenbrunner said, “but if it were to happen I would definitely take it as an honor.”