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Steckel no stranger to playoff surges

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Steckel made his Devils debut on Wednesday against Tampa Bay.

If anyone knows about overcoming long-shot odds to make the postseason, it’s David Steckel.

The newest Devil was a member of the 2007-08 Capitals squad that won 11 of its last 12 games, including the regular season finale, to claim the Southeast Division and qualify for the playoffs.

They had fallen to last overall when Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day. Boudreau led them to a 37-17-7 mark the rest of the way, and Washington became the first team in NHL history to make the playoffs after sitting 14th in the conference at midseason.

Though he would be sidelined that March by a broken finger, Steckel still remembers how the coaching change gave a big lift to the entire team.

“When you have a couple of years of losing and only getting 70 points, it takes its toll on a player to come back the next year and be like, ‘Here we go again,’” Steckel recalled. “I think he came in and he kind of instilled a confidence and an attitude among everybody like, ‘We have some of the best players in this room, there’s no reason we should be 30th in the League right now.’”

Boudreau went on to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach. More than Xs and Os, Steckel said Boudreau made a huge impact on the group’s mindset.

“I think that was his biggest adjustment, was trying to get guys to believe in themselves, give them the confidence to think, ‘We can play with anyone in the League and we’re going to do it, and if you’re not going to do it, we’ll find someone to do it for you,’” Steckel explained.

He's only been a Devil since Monday, but Steckel has noticed similarities between Boudreau and Jacques Lemaire, whose name has become a part of the Jack Adams conversation. Lemaire inherited a 9-22-2 record on Dec. 23 and has since gone 19-9-2.

“They’re very detailed in what they want,” Steckel said. “They know the game, they know the game very well. They make their point when they need to. Jacques is very soft spoken and when he speaks up, you listen because he has something very important to tell you. Bruce is somewhat similar in that regard.”

The Southeast sent just one team to the postseason in 2007-08. The Capitals, who had bottomed out that November by dropping 12 of 13, would need the division crown to get in.

“With six, seven, eight to go, guys were like, OK, this could actually happen,” Steckel remembered. “Guys didn’t really tighten their sticks, but it kind of reenergized their focus to be like, ‘We’re going to make the playoffs, nothing’s going to stop us from doing that.’ It wasn’t more or less like guys tightening up, gripping the stick tighter saying we need to score, we need to get this done. It was more of, all right, we’re going to play harder and shame on us if we don’t make it.”

Carolina’s loss to Florida on the second to last day of the season left Washington alive. The Capitals needed at least one point in their own season finale against Florida, and won the game, 3-1, to complete the comeback.

The two points secured the division as well as the last available berth in the conference.

Steckel believes in the Devils’ push, but knows there’s a lot of work to do. New Jersey trailed the eighth-place Rangers by 10 points entering Friday’s game against Pittsburgh.

“It’s a huge climb to be able to jump 10 points in 19 games,” he said. “It is now. If it’s going to be any run, it’s got to be 18 out of 19, 19 out of 19, that’s just how it works these days.”
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