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Atlantic: Devils find winning ways, path to top of Atlantic

by Chuck Gormley
With a 9-0-1 receord in their last ten games head coach Brent Sutter has brought the New Jersey
Devils back up to first place in the Atlantic Division.
Didn’t Brent Sutter get the memo? The one about parity sweeping the NHL?

Perhaps it went to his old address in Red Deer, Alberta and did not get forwarded to New Jersey until Nov. 17. That’s when the struggling Devils finally gave Martin Brodeur his elusive 500th career victory. At the time, many wondered how many seasons it might take for the 35-year-old goaltender to catch Patrick Roy’s all-time record of 551 career wins.

At this rate, he’ll do it sometime in March.

OK, so the Devils won’t run the table this season and finish 70-10-2. But their nine-game win streak, which was ended by the Rangers, 1-0 in overtime Sunday, served notice to the rest of the Atlantic Division, not to mention the entire League, that the Devils are every bit the contenders the Senators, Red Wings and Sharks claim to be.

In his first six weeks behind an NHL bench, the 45-year-old Sutter raised some eyebrows and collected a few skeptics as the Devils bobbed below and above the .500 mark.

After eight years of coaching teenagers with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League and earning back-to-back gold medals with the Canadian World Junior team, could Sutter relate to a Devils team loaded with veterans who had won under older, more established coaches?

More importantly, after years of playing a counter-attack system, would those veterans buy into Sutter’s aggressive forechecking style in the neutral and attacking zones? Well, taking the Devils from mediocrity (they were 7-10-2 before the win streak) to the top of the Atlantic standings answered those questions.

Getting a healthy Jamie Langenbrunner and Colin White back into the lineup certainly has helped balance out both sides of the blue line, but it was an overall acceptance of Sutter’s message that helped resurrect the Devils.

"I don't think anything needed to change,” said White, who returned to the lineup one game into the streak after sustaining an eye injury. “We believed in each other and believed in our team. We had to get back to basics."

After averaging just 2.2 goals in their first 19 games, the Devils averaged 3.4 goals during their nine-game win streak. Zach Parise, who is looking more and more like a young Scott Gomez, netted nine goals and eight assists during the streak and Brian Gionta had a point or more in eight of the nine games. The Devils’ special teams have also been outstanding during the streak. The power play was clicking at 25 percent (9-for-36) during the win streak, while the penalty kill was humming at 91 percent (31 for 34).

"We're finding ways to get wins," said Langenbrunner, who was elevated to captain last week. "We're picking up points in a bunch of different ways. It's been fun.”

Especially for Brodeur. After beginning the season with very un-Marty-like numbers (5-10-1, 2.74 goals-against average, .892 save percentage) Brodeur has been unbeatable recently, going 9-0 with a 1.53 GAA and .940 save percentage. During the streak, the Devils allowed just 14 goals in nine games.

The win streak has energized the folks in Newark, who are beginning to flood the new Prudential Center, where the Devils are 8-4. In a home win over the Capitals Friday, their fifth straight on home ice, fans at “The Rock” broke into “the Wave.”

“I noticed," Brodeur said. "Winning makes it a lot easier on the crowd to be loud. It's an old trick they took out from the 80s."

"It takes a while to build up a home-ice advantage," Patrik Elias said. "I'm glad we've done as good of a job as we did.”

Of course, bringing back an old guard from the ‘90s didn’t hurt. The Devils honored former captain Scott Stevens before their last home game and while a handful of players remain from the 2002-03 team that last won a Stanley Cup in East Rutherford, it is clear the Devils are heading in a new direction under Sutter.

“This is our own team now, a different team,” Elias said.

The have won nine games in a row three other times in their rich history. They won nine in a row from Jan. 3-21, 2006; 11 in a row to end the 2005-06 season; and 13 in a row from Feb. 26-March 23, 2001.

According to center John Madden, the key to maintaining the Devils’ hold on the Atlantic Division lead is to recognize there have been lapses in their play.

"I don't think we're playing a complete 60 minutes, Madden said. "We're playing well enough to score at the right time and kill penalties at the right time but we've got to still pick it up."

Around the Atlantic -- Outspoken Rangers forward Sean Avery came up with one of the best one-liners of the season when he was asked if he would take a reconditioning assignment

when he returns from a wrist injury, saying; “You have a better chance of seeing God.” … Islanders right wing Bill Guerin netted 36 goals last season, but has struggled this season, going 16 games without a tally before scoring off a deflection Saturday night. ... The Flyers have been outshot in 21 of 27 games this season. They are 4-1-0 when outshooting opponents; and 9-10-2 when getting outshot. They are also 1-0-0 when shots are even. The Flyers have gone 7-8-2 without Simon Gagne, but he could be back by the end of the week. … Now that Mark Recchi has been claimed by the Atlanta Thrashers, Penguins forward Jordan Staal may be looking for a new home. Staal has been living with the Recchi and his family in their suburban Pittsburgh home. Staal, 19, said he has not yet decided whether or not he’ll stay in Recchi’s home. He said the Penguins’ ex-alternate captain was very diplomatic in his departure. “He did not drag anybody into this," Staal said of Recchi’s decision to leave Pittsburgh. "He was thinking more of (the Penguins) than anything. The way he handled it was really professional, and I hope the best for him."



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