"We have been coming together and that's helped us win a bunch of games recently. We have the feeling that we can play really good hockey every night and win a lot of games. The feeling is a little different than earlier in the year. I think we have come together more. We can still improve and we have a lot of big games coming up down the stretch and we can do better."
-- Johnny Oduya
Remember, the Devils won three Stanley Cups with a defense built around Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer, ably supplemented through those years by Brian Rafalski, Sheldon Souray, Bruce Driver and Tommy Albelin.
But the New Jersey defense has proven to be one of the strongest in the NHL, even in the absence of All-Star goalie Martin Brodeur, who missed 50 games after having surgery on a torn biceps tendon. Still, the Devils played like they didn't miss a beat. They used strong goaltending from Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes to catapult to the top of the Atlantic Division standings, a place they continue to occupy now that Brodeur is back.
"We never doubted either 'Clemmer' or Weekes coming in," said Oduya, a revelation on the blue line in his second NHL season, checking in at plus-28 in 73 games. "We know they are tremendous goalies, but there was a lot of hype around it. Marty is probably the best goalie to ever play the game, so it was tough at the start, but we realized there was no one going to save us. We had to play as a team and we've done that. We realized if we play a good, team game, that would keep us ahead. Both goalies did a tremendous job.
"The bottom line is that it's a team sport and if you don't play well as a team, it doesn't matter how good your goalies are. We are trying to stick together and play as a team."
Oduya, 27, is in his third NHL season and has bettered his production from a year ago, when the Stockholm native had 6 goals and 20 assists and finished plus-27. In addition to being plus-23 through 73 games, he has 7 goals and 21 assists.
So, where has Oduya been? He had four good seasons in Swedish juniors, but was considered too small to be an NHL defenseman back in 2001, his draft year, when the Washington Capitals drafted him in the seventh round. He played one year of juniors, split between Moncton and Victoriaville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, then returned to Sweden for five years before signing as a free agent with New Jersey in 2006.
Oduya has excellent speed and good stickhandling skills. He has been paired mostly with Martin, giving the Devils a quick, good-passing top defensive pairing. Oduya said the Devils' defense has made major strides this season.
"We have been coming together and that's helped us win a bunch of games recently," Oduya said. "We have the feeling that we can play really good hockey every night and win a lot of games. The feeling is a little different than earlier in the year. I think we have come together more. We can still improve and we have a lot of big games coming up down the stretch and we can do better."
Oduya was asked if confidence led to success, which in turn increased confidence, kind of a non-vicious circle.
"Probably. When you have that feeling, you win games that you wouldn't, if you didn't have that feeling," he said. "If you have the feeling of an expectation of winning, you find the ways to win those tight games."
Oduya, the son of a Kenyan father and Swedish mother, would love to be considered for Team Sweden at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
"It's the biggest stage in hockey, other than the Stanley Cup," Oduya said. "You represent your country so to put on that sweater is a great honor. We have a lot of great Swedish players, especially defensemen, so you never know. It's all about the start of next year and how things develop. It's tough to say right now but it would be an honor."
"I don't know. It's four years between those tournaments. I don't know if defending the gold medal makes a difference," he said. "There will be a lot of players from the last Olympics who won't be on the team. I don't think it has a big impact but if you won before you know the feeling and want to win again. That's how the players look at it."
Oduya was only 12 when Sweden won its first Olympic gold medal in 1994, thanks to strong goaltending from Tommy Salo and a shootout goal by Peter Forsberg.
"I remember Forsberg's penalty shot. I wasn't that old," Oduya said. "I remember being home and watching it on TV. We didn't have pros in the Olympics then, just amateurs. We had a good team for amateurs. It was the first time I watched the Olympics, so it was something special."
Oduya said that Olympic victory wasn't an inspiration to him because he was already playing hockey and had a goal.
"I always looked more to the NHL and the Stanley Cup," he said. "I have represented the national team on several occasions. I thought it was cool when Sweden won but, for me, the Stanley Cup was the biggest motivator. A gold medal in the Olympics would be No. 2."