The New Jersey Devils spent the first half of the season falling into the kind of hole the franchise hasn't seen for two decades. They're going to spend the second half trying to dig their way out.
A 14th consecutive playoff berth may be more than the Devils can manage. For now, they're taking it one game at a time -- and making a little bit of headway.
Monday's 5-2 victory against the New York Islanders was the Devils' third win, along with an overtime loss, in their last four games. Not a huge spurt by any means – but it's their longest unbeaten streak in regulation this season, and a huge improvement after a dreadful first half in which they went 10-29-2, dropping them to the bottom of the overall standings.
It was a team-wide collapse. Future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur won just five of 21 decisions. Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't find the net – and neither could anyone else on a team that scored just 72 times in 41 games. New coach John MacLean didn't make it to Christmas; GM Lou Lamoriello fired him on Dec. 23 and brought back Jacques Lemaire from retirement.
It has taken some time, but Lemaire appears to be putting the wheels back on. Brodeur sat for a bit while Johan Hedberg played, but has looked sharper during the 3-0-1 run. He's gotten more help from his defense – and the offense has started to put the puck in the net, scoring 18 times in the four-game surge.
"You can tell we work way harder than we used to," said Kovalchuk, who has three goals in three games and is up to 13 for the season. "We're practicing way more intense and everybody is getting into game shape."
Not that Kovalchuk has any delusions of making the playoffs – at least not with his team still six points behind the Islanders for 29th place in the standings and 24 points behind Atlanta for the last playoff berth in the East.
"We are very far away from where we want to be," Kovalchuk said.
For now, Brodeur, it's time to look at the little picture – winning each game as it comes along – rather than take the big-picture view.
"We don't look at making the playoffs," Brodeur said after Monday's win. "Our goal is to try to get back to .500. It's a long way in front of us, but we're going to give it a shot, and we'll see what that number will bring us."
Lemaire, who led the Devils to the Atlantic Division title last season before stepping down, is focused on getting his team to play more defensively responsible hockey. If they do that, he feels, the offense will take care of itself.
"I don't look at that," Lemaire said when asked about the recent splurge of goals. "I look at how our team plays and the goals will come. You look at the guys tonight and they went at the net and scored a few goals because they went at the net. This is what I'm looking for. There's some nights they'll go in. Other nights they don't. What can you do?"
Getting used to Lemaire's defense-first system hasn't been easy, especially for some of the younger players. Rookie Mattias Tedenby scored a brilliant goal in the second period on Monday – in his first game back after being a healthy scratch for six games.
"He played really well," Lemaire said of the Devils' first-round pick in 2008. "I'm happy the way he controls the puck, the way he skates all of that. I thought he played a real good game, real good game. Despite the fact that he scored, he was good with the puck and did some good stuff that we’re asking."
Even Kovalchuk, one of the NHL's top scorers, is expected to be responsible defensively. Lemaire said he's seeing improvement in that regard – and that he's more concerned about Kovalchuk's defense than his offense.
"You're talking about points and I'm going to tell you that he's more aware of his defensive game," Lemaire said. "He's playing better. He's shooting pucks. Playing good. He's responsible defensively. He's getting to know that game, too. It's good."
Getting used to Lemaire's system, especially on the fly after a midseason coaching change, is a learning process – one that figures to go on for the rest of the season, regardless of the fact that a playoff chase doesn't appear to be a realistic goal.
"Guys are learning the way that Jacques wants us to play, and you can tell the guys are more organized," Brodeur said. "You can tell we still have a couple of shifts here and there where we look like we don't know what to do, but slowly it's coming along pretty well."