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Atlantic: Injuries just a part of Devils' problems

Monday, 11.17.2008 / 10:30 PM / Division Notebooks

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Injuries are something that can't be controlled, so they can't be something that are worried about. That's the philosophy the New Jersey Devils have long subscribed to, because, really there's no other choice.

The Devils haven't been bitten by the injury bug, they've been in the center of a swarm of killer bees. It's a large part of what's led them to a 3-5 mark, including a four-game losing streak, in November. They don't have a regulation win since Nov. 1.

"I guess it's a natural thing to think about it," coach Brent Sutter told reporters recently, "(but) you can't use it as an excuse and I'm not even saying our guys are. I don't believe they are. But psychologically ... I think it plays with your mind a little bit."

The injuries have come at every position, most notably to goaltender Martin Brodeur. Their stellar netminder may have the most discussed left biceps tendon in the history of hockey, but he's far from the only key member of the Devils on the injured list. The team's two biggest offseason acquisitions, forwards Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, have combined to play just nine games this season. Rolston has been out since Oct. 16 with a high ankle sprain, and recently suffered a set-back in his attempt to come back. After skating for four-straight days, he left the ice early last Friday, further muddling any timetable for his return. Holik was scheduled to have the pins removed from his finger Monday, and then he can begin rehabilitation; if all goes well, he could be back in another week or so.

The defense also has been bombarded by injuries. Andy Greene suffered a broken hand Oct. 29 and likely won't be back until sometime in December. Paul Martin missed five games with an upper-body injury; and Bryce Salvador is playing, but is less than 100 percent.

Other injuries stray a little to the bizarre side of things. Tough guy Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond has a fractured sinus; leading scorer Zach Parise suffered a bruised heel when he was struck by a shot; defenseman Mike Mottau needed stitches when he was hit in the eye with a deflected puck while he was sitting on the bench.

It's led the Devils to use a League-high 26 skaters, plus three goalies, and has led to a revolving-door feeling in the dressing room.

"We've just got to stick together," forward Dainius Zubrus told reporters. "We know the team we have in this room is what we have. You guys (the media) talk about injuries and other things, but in the room we don't talk about that stuff. We understand that what we've got is what we've got and we have quite enough players to play against anybody. It's just us sticking together and there's quite a few veteran guys that understand that through a season there's ups and downs and injuries and all kinds of stuff. We've got to stick together. That's all. We have to back each other up."

There are other issues plaguing the Devils. Brodeur's replacements, Kevin Weekes and Scott Clemmensen, have been shaky at best, and have allowed three or more goals five times in the last seven games.

The club's special teams have been atrocious -- they have the League's third-worst power play (12.9 percent) and the third-worst penalty killing (73.9 percent).

And after Parise, who leads the team with 20 points, they're not getting any offensive contributions. In fact, Parise's 12 goals is one less than Patrik Elias' second-place point total. Brian Gionta has just 3 goals; Zubrus has 2 goals; John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner have just 7 points apiece.

As team captain, Langenbrunner won't let his teammates dwell on the negatives.

"We have to keep a positive attitude," he said. "The first thing that happens is that guys start dreading coming to the rink. So you keep a smile on your face. I'm going to keep playing hard and keep going. You do the things you know that made you successful."

Laying down the law -- When John Stevens replaced Ken Hitchcock as coach of the Flyers in October 2006, his low-key demeanor was a welcome respite from the high-decibel Hitchcock.

 
 
While Stevens might not yell as loud as his predecessor, he has no trouble telling his players exactly what he expects from them, and no trouble punishing them if they don't meet those expectations.

Joffrey Lupul and Scott Hartnell are examples A and B in that regard.

First it was Lupul last Monday being demoted to the fourth line.

"I don’t think he's been doing it to level he is capable of," Stevens said.

A day later, Hartnell was benched for the third period of a game at the Islanders.

"He didn't look like he wanted to play tonight, so we went in another direction,” Stevens bluntly told reporters after the game. "I didn't like his game, I didn't think he was moving his feet. (Arron) Asham was doing a better job so he got moved up. (Then) there was a little more jump in our game."

Has the message gotten through?

Lupul needs to play physical to be successful -- he was at his best last season when he played like a wrecking ball on the forecheck -- and he had a team-high four hits against the Islanders. He also got to the net to tip in a Kimmo Timonen pass that gave his team its only lead in Thursday's 5-4 shootout loss to Pittsburgh last Thursday, and he had a fabulous end-to-end rush for the game-winning goal Sunday night against the Thrashers.

Hartnell was more active against the Pens, and Stevens obviously showed how he felt about Hartnell by putting him out in the shootout with the game on the line.

Stevens showed two things -- first, he won't let his players slack for a moment. Second, he showed that regardless of reputation, he'll only play the players playing their best. Lupul and Hartnell learned that first-hand, and their teammates also have gotten the hint.

"Maybe it's a good thing," team captain Mike Richards said. "You play well, you're going to play. If you don't play so well, you're not. Maybe it prepares you more for the game, pushes you a little bit more. That's the way it's supposed to be, I think."

Leading the charge
-- The League and the NHLPA have talked about taking head shots out of the game, and now Flyers forward Simon Gagne is ready to turn the words into action.

"We have to take away the blow to the head," Gagne told CSNPhilly.com. "We have to do something about it. (GM Paul Holmgren) told me, 'You guys have to start talking about it. It’s not going to come from the officials or the League, it has to come from the players.'"

Gagne, who missed most of last season due to concussion-related issues, had his anger stoked Saturday night when he was elbowed in the head by the Canadiens' Alex Kovalev. The play was unpenalized, despite Gagne pleading his case to referee Marc Joanette.

"I talked to him. ... I showed him the mark on my face and asked him if he saw what Kovalev did to me," Gagne said. "He said, 'Yeah, it's a shoulder to the face and it's legal. It's not an elbow. It's a shoulder to the face.'"

Shoulder or elbow, Gagne has had enough of the head shots, and enough of the talk about getting rid of them. It's time for action, and if it has to be him, he'll take the lead.

"Maybe I'll be the guy because we have to do something," Gagne said. "Talking to a lot of people here, talking to Homer (Holmgren) and the coaches, it has to come from the players. So, with what happened (Saturday) night, I'm ready to be that guy."

News and notes -- Mike Comrie's sore hip has landed him on injured reserve. He had surgery on the hip during the summer, and had just 2 goals in 14 games before leaving the lineup. While Comrie is out, defenseman Radek Martinek returned Saturday after missing a month with a shoulder injury, and his partner, Brendan Witt, is about a week away from returning from a knee injury that has kept him out since Oct. 25. ... The Islanders have drawn a few celebrities recently. General Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State, dropped the first puck at Tuesday's Veterans Day matinee between the Flyers and Islanders, and former Met and Yankee outfielder Darryl Strawberry dropped the first puck Saturday night. A portion of the gate proceeds from that night's game went to Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy group; Strawberry is an autism activist. ... Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has the League's longest scoring streak at 13 straight games, he's leads the League lead in scoring -- and he's doing it all with a sore thumb, injured when he blocked a shot last week against the Islanders. ... Two come-from-behind wins last week gave the Penguins six wins this season when trailing after two periods. They won six times all last season when trailing going into the third. ... The Penguins wore their new third jersey for the first time Saturday against the Sabres. It's the same powder-blue look they wore at the 2008 Winter Classic, when they faced the Sabres. That same night also was the 75th straight sell-out at Mellon Arena, a club record. ... When the Devils played the Rangers last Wednesday, it was the first time Martin Brodeur missed the Blueshirts in 30 games, dating to Nov. 5, 2005. Prior to that, the last time Brodeur watched a Rangers-Devils game was Dec. 5, 1993. ... Dan Girardi didn't win a full-time job with the Rangers because of his offensive ability, but with 14 points in 20 games, he's already halfway to last season's 28 point total in 82 games last season. His 12 assists ties him for fourth among the League's blueliners. ... One of the scarier sights this season was Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky landing very hard on the back of his head after a tussle with 6-foot-5, 225-pound Devils forward Dainius Zubrus on top of him Thursday. Thankfully, Dubinsky wasn't hurt and even got involved in a dust-up with Zach Parise later in the game. ... The Flyers' win against the Thrashers improved goaltender Antero Niittymaki to 11-0 lifetime against Atlanta. "I really don't know, I just feel comfortable playing against them," said Niittymaki. "There's no magic. Hopefully it stays that way." He's one of two active goalies with a perfect record in at least 10 decisions against one team. Detroit's Chris Osgood is 17-0 against the Lightning.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.


Quote of the Day

Obviously a lot happened in a short period of time. At the end of the day, considering everything I went through, I really felt close to my teammates and I really feel like what we accomplished, I know we didn't win it all. ... I'm really proud of how we got there and what we did once we got there.

— Rangers forward Martin St. Louis to Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com