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Sutter's Devils avoiding a familiar trap

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils

Emphasizing puck possession, the Devils have rounded out into one of the NHL's top offensive clubs.
email – Reputations can be tough to shake, but Brent Sutter doesn't worry much about ill-informed opinions.

His Devils are awfully good at keeping opponents off the board, having allowed just under two and a half goals per game this season. How they're doing it, though, might surprise those who would still label New Jersey as a "trap" team.

The new brand of Devils hockey, Sutter says, hinges on the forecheck; the kind of aggressive, puck-possession game that also happens to have them scoring goals at a clip not seen in New Jersey since 2001.

Sutter's squad wins with speed and skill.
Gone are the days of carrying the puck to the red line and dumping it in. The Devils stress defensive accountability but now ask their skill players to shine.

Scoring chances against remain low. Scoring chances for have doubled. It's Sutter hockey, and it's working.

"You could sense it this year in training camp," the second-year head coach said this week. "Right from the get-go we had a good feeling. You could just see the way we played in exhibition, it was a different type of a make-up as far as how we wanted to play the game. Yeah it's been stuff that's been addressed since last year, but it's taken time. Now they feel confident and they realize, 'We can play this way and have success doing it.'"

The Devils entered last weekend's All-Star break riding a five-game winning streak and captured a season-high sixth in a row with Tuesday's 4-1 triumph in Ottawa. New Jersey holds a one-point lead over the New York Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division, and a four-point edge over third-place Philadelphia.

Offensively, the Devils are averaging 3.02 goals per game, and the contributions are coming from up and down the lineup.

Forty-eight games in, Patrik Elias has matched his entire output from last season. Zach Parise is on the verge of a third straight season with 30-or-more goals. Jamie Langenbrunner is three goals and two assists shy of his totals from last year. Travis Zajac already has more goals, assists and points than he did in all of 2007-08. David Clarkson has already reached a new career-high in goals. Recent addition Brendan Shanahan has chipped in with two goals in his first three games.

The last time New Jersey's offense averaged this much production was 2000-01, when it lit the lamp a league-leading 3.60 times a game. Coach Larry Robinson's Devils made it to Game 7 of the Finals that season, one year after they had beaten Dallas for the second Stanley Cup in franchise history.

But in 2001-02, production dropped by more than a goal a game and the Devils slipped offensively from first in the league to 21st. They would finish no better than 14th over the next five campaigns.

This season, the Devils' rejuvenated attack is fourth best in the conference and on pace for 25% more goals than a year ago.

"It's a long year," Sutter said. "When you know from September to the first two weeks in April that you're going to have to win every game 1-0 and 2-1 to give yourself a chance to succeed it's a tough way to play.

"Three is a magic number in the league, when you think about it, and I'm not the only one that says that," he continued. "Other coaches say the same thing: You go out every night thinking you have to score three goals to win a game. If you score less than that, your odds of winning diminish. But three seems to be the number now. For our team last year, it was one or two [goals per game]. We've been fortunate enough to have different guys contribute."

The Devils were expected to take a hit defensively when Martin Brodeur suffered a left elbow injury back on Nov. 1. That hasn't happened. Even without the services of the four-time Vezina Trophy winner, New Jersey ranks second in the Eastern Conference with just 2.44 goals allowed per game.

Defense has long been a staple of the Devils' gameplan. They've been the NHL's best defensive squad three times in the past decade, never finishing worse than ninth over that span. Still, these aren't quite the same Devils.

"There's just that stigma out there," Sutter said. "I've watched the New Jersey Devils play for a long time. We don't play the same way we did two or three years ago. That was a good way to play then, but you can't play that way anymore. It's a hard way to play the game because every team is on the attack now. You spend way too much time in your own zone and you rely too much on one player, and that's the guy between the pipes."

Clemmensen has gone 20-9-1 in 30 starts. View highlights
This season, that guy has been Scott Clemmensen, who has shouldered most of the goaltending responsibilities in Brodeur's absence. Brodeur has already started skating on his own and remains on target for a March return.

Clemmensen, who has started 30 of the 38 games without Brodeur, has become one of the NHL's great stories this season. In his first shot at regular NHL playing time, the 31-year-old recorded his first career 20-win season and currently sits among the league's wins leaders.

"We don't have to be a team that relies just on our goaltender," Sutter said. "We can be a team that relies on our forwards and our defense, knowing that we have the puck more and we can make plays and play with some offense. When you do that, sometimes there's the risk you take where you give up the odd scoring chance, but that's where you need your goaltender."

Clemmensen has been complemented by an able corps of puck-moving blueliners that limits chances in its own zone. Though hardly flashy – Johnny Oduya's 19 points are tops among Devils defensemen but only 44th in the league – the group is steady. Led by Mike Mottau's plus-18, four of them have plus/minus ratings among the top 17 for NHL defensemen.

The catalysts, though, are up front. The speed of forwards such as Elias, Parise, Zajac, Brian Gionta, John Madden and Brian Rolston pressure opponents into turnovers and scoring chances.

That Sutter system is what has the Devils speeding into the season's stretch run.

"I've always said you can't take skills away from a player when he has them," Sutter said. "You have to let his skills flourish and let him improve. Some players, they level off. But for some players, there's really no ceiling. We have players on our team with no ceiling there. Why hold them back? I don't worry about what other people are saying or what they think. All I care about is how we know within our dressing room how we have to play."

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