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Winning system key for depleted Devils

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Andy Greene has been a vital part of the Devils' defense.
Maybe the outside observer has a hard time understanding how the banged-up Devils could be emerging as the beasts of the East. But inside the dressing room, the Devils say it's their system that has kept the club on an even keel.

Last season, under former head coach Brent Sutter, Jersey's Team overcame a four-month stretch without Martin Brodeur to finish atop the Atlantic Division. With Jacques Lemaire back behind the bench in 2009-10, the team has shown a familiar resilience.

"Doesn’t matter who’s going to be here, or how many injuries, we’re still going to play the same way," Lemaire said recently. "We haven’t changed: the skill guys, they get their points. We don’t change."

No dates have been set for the returns of New Jersey's missing regulars: forwards Rob Niedermayer (upper body) and Jay Pandolfo (shoulder), and defensemen Paul Martin (arm) and Johnny Oduya (lower body).

Nevertheless, the Devils keep chugging along. They rode a seven-game winning streak into Saturday's matchup with the Washington Capitals, and will take a 9-0 road record into Philadelphia on Monday.

"It’s an organizational thing because it’s a team philosophy from top to bottom," said defenseman Mike Mottau. "You can plug in different guys into the system and still have success. I think that’s what we’ve shown. Along with the injuries comes opportunity, and I think that guys have stepped up and taken up a lot of the slack left by the guys that are out."

Zach Parise, who blossomed into one of the NHL's top point-getters a year ago, is back at it again. Through 17 games, the fifth-year left wing leads the Devils with 21 points on nine goals and 12 assists.

Parise's work ethic has set a standard for upcoming youngsters such as Niclas Bergfors, who is fifth among rookies with 12 points (5g-7a).

"Zach is a great model for the young guys," Lemaire said. "Zach doesn’t have his success because he’s cutting corners short, or because he’s not working every night. That’s why he’s got success, because he’s working every night, he’s working every shift. He does what he has to do every shift to be successful. That’s why he’s good."

The rise of defenseman Andy Greene's also couldn't have come at a better time. Without Martin or Oduya available, Greene has blossomed into New Jersey's top rearguard. He has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time while registering three goals and six assists in 14 games.

Greene, 27, notched the game-winning goal in Pittsburgh on Thursday, becoming the first Devil ever to score the game-winning goal or get an assist on the game-winner in each of five consecutive team games.
"He's been very steady all year," Lemaire said. "Probably the best defenseman up to now. He's so calm and knows the game well. He's sneaky, and by sneaky I mean, getting away from guys and putting pucks where they can get it. These little passes that he makes, it's all smart. It's the smart stuff that he does. Very pleased with the way he's playing."

The loss of a skilled player such as Martin means Lemaire might need to adjust the role of his replacement, but he won't ask anyone to give more than they're capable of giving. On defense, for example, Lemaire's system boils down to three options.

"You have to pick one," said the coach. "If the guy can’t pick an option and he’s on the power play, I’m going to tell him to shoot the puck in. Get the red line and shoot it in. I’m going to try to simplify his game. It won’t look as good."

Critics might label it conservative, but Lemaire said it's smart hockey.

"You guys will call that conservative, but I don’t call that conservative," Lemaire told reporters. "I call that knowing the game, knowing your potential, knowing who you play against."

Lemaire admitted to certain pet peeves about how his system is executed.

"The only thing that I stop or where I draw the line is the centerman on the forecheck being the first man," he said. "You have to have a reason. You have to have a reason if you’re going first. You can’t go on when he has full control; you don’t go on. Because you can’t be forechecking and backcheck. It’s just common sense.

"You can’t be there chasing them, then go into your zone and get the puck and chase them again and get the puck. If he does that, the wingers will get lazy. They won’t forecheck, they won’t backcheck – that’s a great game. No forecheck, no backcheck and paycheck. That’s good. Everyone has duties and they have to do it. When everyone does it, it doesn’t stop anyone from getting their points."

Young blueliner Mark Fraser has been another name to make an impact. He had a seven-game stint with New Jersey in 2006-07, then spent the next two seasons in Lowell. This year he has a goal and an assist in nine appearances.

"Very impressed," Lemaire said of the 23-year-old. "He's solid. Who would say that this kid, first of all, at the start of the year would be with us? Secondly, he's playing among the top four, so he's getting a lot of minutes. We love the way he plays. He's very safe, aggressive. He's playing a man's game out there."

None of it surprises Mottau.

"Guys elevate their play to make up for those injuries as well," he said. "Paul Martin’s a top defenseman, and when Patrik Elias was out, that’s a top forward. Guys are hungrier to go out and prove that those injuries aren’t going to hold us back."

The Capitals, a team capable of gaudy scoring totals with or without injured MVP Alex Ovechkin, have fallen to the Devils in both of their meetings this season.

Sometimes a solid system trumps pure skill.

"Absolutely, because the system is five guys working together," said Mottau. "Usually talent is on an individual basis. That’s been a proven formula for success for us: five guys working together in each zone, and it’s been resulting in wins. Although we haven’t been playing our best hockey at times, we have a foundation that we can always go back to."

Lemaire said Saturday that the Capitals didn't need No. 8 in the lineup to be dangerous.

"First of all, they have a good team," Lemaire said. "He just makes that team better, but it’s still a good team without him. Sometimes when you do have a good team, it’s not bad to have injuries to one of your top players. Sometimes it’s not bad. It shows that the team’s still good without a good part of the team. It’s a confidence builder. We’re trying to do that, exactly. We’ve lost guys that are important. The other guys want to prove that we’re capable of doing well. I wouldn’t say the same thing if they lost (Alex) Semin, (Nicklas) Backstrom and Ovechkin. Then it would be a different team."

• Jamie Langenbrunner did not take part in Saturday's morning skate, deciding instead to rest. The captain's playing status is not in question. Players, said Lemaire, just need a break from time to time.

"When you’re in good shape, I don’t think you need the morning skate," Lemaire said. "That’s one thing. And it’s good to rest – it’s simple. Players they play, and this you get on every team, they get banged up or they get sore wrist at times, sore shoulder or they get hit on the side. To rest is good. It’s better than going on the ice, and it’s every team that does that. Doesn’t mean the guy can’t play. If he can’t play, he’s really injured. But the guys are tough and they’re playing through these little nicks that they can have."

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