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Devils polish off another gem in 2009-10

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Team-first approach had Devils atop Atlantic once again.
What an outstanding 2009-10 regular season it was for the Devils.

They brought back head coach Jacques Lemaire. They overcame injuries to record the best first half in franchise history. They wound up with their second straight Atlantic Division crown, and fourth in the last five seasons.

They pulled off the biggest trade of the season, landing sniper Ilya Kovalchuk in a five-player swap. They shored up their defense with the addition of Martin Skoula.

They brought back their original red and green jerseys for the first time in 18 years. And with a sold-out St. Patrick’s Day crowd at the Rock, the throwback proved to be New Jersey’s lucky charm in a sixth straight win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

A youth movement took root, as rookies like Mark Fraser, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and Vladimir Zharkov turned from prospects to NHL regulars.

Jersey’s Team clinched its ninth division crown and 12th 100-point season. They open their 13th consecutive postseason on Wednesday, when they host the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

As it has for 16 seasons, the Devils’ blueprint for success started between the pipes.

Martin Brodeur led the NHL with 45 wins and nine shutouts, making more League history in the process. He set a new League record for shutouts, became the second goaltender to make 1,000 appearances, and won his fifth Williams Jennings Trophy for fewest team goals allowed (191). A year after establishing the League’s new wins mark, Brodeur broke new ground for goaltenders by becoming the first to reach 600.

How’s this for stingy netminding: Brodeur set the shutouts mark (104) by blanking Pittsburgh on Dec. 21, sparking a stretch of five shutouts in 14 starts. He finished the season on a high note, allowing just seven goals in his final seven starts, including career shutout No. 110.

Defensively, the Devils hadn’t been this tough to score on since 2003-04, when they gave up a team-record 164 goals over 82 games. This year, they were tops in both goals against (186) and goals-against average (2.27), and were second to Chicago in shots allowed per game (27.0).

Parise, Langenbrunner celebrate the tying goal in the gold medal game.
Zach Parise had another fantastic campaign, becoming just the second player to lead the Devils in scoring in three straight seasons. (He’s still two seasons shy of tying Patrik Elias, the team’s leading scorer for five in a row from 1999-00 to 2003-04.)

With 38 goals, Parise became the first Devil ever to reach the 30-goal plateau four consecutive times. With 82 points, he’s the first Devil with back-to-back 80-point seasons.

Parise’s winter featured one of the most memorable goals in U.S. Olympic history. Who can forget the sight of him leaping into the glass after forcing overtime with 24.4 seconds left in the gold medal game against Canada? Parise was mobbed by his teammates – including Team USA captain Jamie Langenbrunner – in what gained national attention for U.S. hockey.

Ultimately, Brodeur and the Canadians took gold. But Parise and Langenbrunner came home with a hard-fought second-place finish – and a silver lining if there ever was one.

In New Jersey, Kovalchuk proved every bit the offensive catalyst he was purported to be. In his Devils debut on Feb. 5, he assisted on the tying goal to spark an incredible last-minute rally past Toronto.

He racked up 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 27 games, including eight multi-point outings. He finished with 41 goals to become the first player with six straight seasons of 40-or-more since Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille in 1994.

At every turn, the Devils managed to turn injuries into opportunities. No one capitalized more than Andy Greene, who emerged as a bona fide No. 1 defenseman while Paul Martin missed 59 games with a fractured left forearm.

Greene, a healthy scratch in three of New Jersey’s first six games, was logging nearly 30 minutes a game by late October. He earned more minutes and more responsibility as he developed into the Devils’ top-scoring blueliner. His six goals, 31 assists for 37 points shattered his previous career high of 10 points; his 78 appearances became a new career high, surpassing 59 from 2007-08.

Greene made team history in November, when he set a club mark by scoring or assisting on five consecutive game-winning goals. The five-game points streak was a career high.

Any talk of career years must include center Travis Zajac, who reached new highs in goals (25) and points (67), and matched last year’s career-best for assists (42). In March, he appeared in his 308th consecutive game, passing Jay Pandolfo for the fourth longest stretch in club history.

There were team streaks: nine-straight road wins from Oct. 8 to Nov. 12 that was the NHL’s longest before San Jose tied it in February. At home, two six-game winning streaks, followed by a five- and a three-gamer. An eight-game run from Oct. 29 to Nov. 14 was the longest of six streaks of three-or-more straight wins.

Now it’s on to the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where the Devils’ 1-4-1 regular-season record against the Flyers is expunged to a 0-0 mark in the postseason. New Jersey has taken two of the three previous playoff meetings between the clubs, and went on both times (1995, 2000) to capture the Cup.

Sixteen teams stand at the postseason starting line, among them the Devils and Flyers. Only one ends the year with a win.

The race to the finish starts Wednesday.

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