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Atlantic: Longest road trip in Devils' history about to end

by Chuck Gormley /

Work continues on the streets around the new Prudential Center arena in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007. The new home of the New Jersey Devils is scheduled to open on Oct. 25, 2007.
They are the NHL’s vagabonds, a team with a brand new home that comfortably seats 17,625 of their closest friends. Yet they’re still waiting for the keys to open the front doors.

Heck, even Bon Jovi gets to play in the new crib before the Devils. Thursday night, the boys formerly from East Rutherford will play the final game of their season-opening, nine-game road trip when they cross the Hudson to face the New York Rangers.

The Devils have stayed in so many hotel rooms the past three weeks they now expect their wives to put chocolate mints on their pillows.

So, coach Brent Sutter, what’s it been like playing out of a suitcase for the better part of three weeks?

“I’m not talking about the road anymore,” grumbled Sutter, who has been cursed with perhaps the worst season-opening schedule of any first-year coach.

Sutter had just been dealt a 4-0 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia and was in no mood to start hearing Sympathy for the Devils.

“I’m tired of talking to (reporters) about the road. We played in Pittsburgh last night and it was a 30-minute flight here, and they’ve been laying around here all day today waiting to play. They’re players; that’s what they’re supposed to do. They play on the road.”

If the Devils were hoping to come out of their nine-game road trip with a .500 record, they’re just a win in New York away. Through the first eight games they were 3-4-1, but were outscored by an alarming 18-6 in their losses, two of them by shutouts.

To appreciate their journey and their new style of play under Sutter, we thought it might be best to take you through it.

Oct. 4 at Tampa (999 miles from Newark), Lightning 3, Devils 1 -- Vincent Lecavalier spoils Sutter’s debut as head coach when he scores twice, including the tiebreaking goal with 3:52 left in the third.

Afterward, Sutter boldly states that Lecavalier is “the best player in the League,” then puts a message in his own players’ ears.

“I thought we stood around too much in the third,” he said. “We weren't assertive enough."

In that third period, Patrik Elias and newcomer Dainius Zubrus are on the ice for all three Tampa goals, which draws some questioning from the Jersey media.

"It had nothing to do with who we had out on the ice against (Lecavalier),” Sutter says. “We just weren't intelligent. When you have your top-end guys out on the ice, they've got to do the job.”

Oct. 6 at Sunrise, Fla. (183 miles later): Devils 4, Panthers 1 -- The Devils are out-shot 21-9 in the first period, but backup Kevin Weekes -- playing for the first time since last January -- makes 20 of his 32 saves in the opening 20 minutes to give Sutter his first win behind the New Jersey bench.

“It has been a long time,” said Weekes, who played for the Rangers last season and was signed by the Devils to lighten the load on Martin Brodeur. “But at the same time, I'm thankful for every day. Be thankful for your health, and you work hard and hopefully good things will happen."

Oct. 8 at Ottawa (1,353 miles later): Senators 4, Devils 2 -- The Devils fall behind 2-0 in the first period and can’t recover as Brodeur falls to 0-2.

“To win in this League - to win in any league - you've got to play well for 60 minutes,” Sutter says, “and it's two games in a row where we haven't had a good first period, and three games in a row where we've got one period where we haven't played well because we're not doing what we need to do to be successful.”

Meanwhile, players around the League are beginning to wonder if the Devils have shifted from their defensive, tight-checking style to a more aggressive forecheck.

Oct. 11 at Sunrise, Fla. (1,353 return miles later): Panthers 3, Devils 0 -- Brodeur makes 28 saves for the Devils, but falls to 0-3 for the season. The 1-3 start is the worst for the Devils since the 2001-02 season.

"We're going to get it together somehow,” Sutter promises. “Hopefully, it will come quicker than it's going right now."

Oct. 13 at Atlanta (580 miles later): Devils 6, Thrashers 5 -- Elias comes alive with two goals, including the game-winner with 27 seconds remaining in regulation, finally giving Brodeur his first win. The Devils outshoot the winless Thrashers 35-17, but allow the game-tying goal with just 3:20 left in regulation.

“We almost messed it up,” Sutter says. “Right now, we'll take anything.”

A 741-mile trip from Atlanta to Newark allows players to reintroduce themselves to wives and children.

Oct. 17 at Pittsburgh (306 miles later): Devils 5, Penguins 4 -- Devils win a wild one for the second-straight time and word is beginning to spread that the team with the NHL’s best goals-against average last season has become a bunch of runners and gunners.

“It's definitely different, a different look; very entertaining for the fans," Devils forward Brian Gionta says. “But I’d like to be keeping the puck out of the net a little more and keep scoring the goals we do."

"It's not the way we draw things up," says checking-line center John Madden. "But nonetheless, we're getting wins."

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Martin Biron is congratulated by teammates Lasse Kukkonen and Jason Smith after shutting out the New Jersey Devils 4-0 Oct.18, 2007.

Oct. 18 at Philadelphia (258 miles later): Flyers 4, Devils 0 -- Brodeur is serenaded with derisive chants of “Maaaaar-teeeee” while Flyers goaltender Martin Biron is lauded with chants of “MAR-TEE” as the Devils slip to 3-4.

"They're not the same team," says Flyers left wing Simon Gagne. "But every time you say something like that about New Jersey they always come back and surprise you with something. I don't want to count Jersey easier than they were last year.”

Jim Dowd, who played for the Devils last year before making the Flyers on a tryout contract, agrees.

”They have some new faces and a new coach and sometimes it takes 10 or 15 games to gel,” Dowd says. “But they will."

Oct. 20 at Uniondale, N.Y. (95 miles later): Islanders 4, Devils 3, OT -- The Devils fight back from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie the score, but former Devil Bill Guerin knocks a loose puck past Weekes with 3.7 ticks left in overtime to send the Devils to their fifth loss of the season. Again, a new perspective from an opponent.

"They used to be a sit-back team and wait for you to make mistakes and capitalize on them," Isles goalie Rick DiPietro says. "Now, they try and create mistakes."

And there you have it. The curtain is about to close on the longest road show in Devils’ history, followed by the dawn of a new era of Devils hockey at the recently completed Prudential Arena in downtown Newark.

It couldn’t come any sooner for the road-weary Devils, who have logged more than 5,000 miles in the past three weeks. Or, as Bon Jovi would croon, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?”

Around the Atlantic -- The Flyers are about to find out how those Devils feel. Off to a 6-1 start, they will play their next eight games on the road. The trip will take them to Sunrise, Tampa, Boston, Montreal, Washington, New York, Pittsburgh and New Jersey. Look for backup Antero Niittymaki to finally make his first start of the season. … Speaking of goaltending, there is talk in Pittsburgh about finding some solid support behind Marc-Andre Fleury, who is off to a 3-3 start with a 3.53 GAA. The Pens could use a solid veteran backup and Brian Boucher has started off with a bang with the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms, winning his first four starts before dropping a 6-3 decision on the weekend. At 30, Boucher is trying to get back to the NHL and the Penguins might be the perfect fit. … Isles coach Ted Nolan has been dressing seven defensemen, doubling Aaron Johnson on the right wing with fourth liners Richard Park and Chris Simon. "Every practice, he works his tail off; he's always in the gym; he's one of the first guys at practice, and he's enthusiastic," Nolan said of Johnson. "What we try to instill in this team is that the people that work will get an opportunity. We'll have an energetic fourth line that will cause some havoc and crash the net." … The Rangers suffered a big loss when left wing Martin Straka broke the index finger on his right hand during the weekend. Straka blocked a shot by Boston’s Zdeno Chara in a shootout loss and could miss up to three weeks.

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