Must’ve been a slow night, sports-wise, if I feel the need to talk about the New Jersey Devils. There has been no more scenery team, and dreary at that, than the Devils the past 10 years. You didn’t think about them until they came up on the schedule against your favorite team. And even when that happened, it wasn’t an occasion you can remember. I was a season ticket holder here in Chicago for 12 seasons, and I don’t remember a single visit by the Devils. I know they were there every year because they had to be, but other than that, couldn’t help you.
Turn on a Devils game on Center Ice and you’d see a half-empty building filled with wayward souls merely acting out of ritual and trying to not think too hard about what landed them in a chilled warehouse in Newark. I assume that’s what all of Newark is like, and I don’t plan to ever find out for sure, which is how most everyone feels about Newark. It’s a place you’ve heard of and would never find yourself there on purpose. [Editor’s note: Newark has the Ironbound Section around the Devils’ home ice, which is worth checking out.] Which is kind of how the Devils roster was constructed.
And yet…now…on a Tuesday night, there was “The Rock” full and lively. The faithful were only too happy to sing along to “Take On Me” or “My Own Worst Enemy” (becoming something of an NHL tradition, to be fair) long after the PA had cut out for the action on the ice. The place actively bounced after big hits and Devils goals and sounded in turmoil after the hosts had two goals ruled out by video reviews.
And on the ice, the Devils were fast. They were creative. They were… fun? Is that what this says? That can’t be, right?
The Devils won their eighth in a row, their second in a week over the Calgary Flames, 3-2. They came back from a goal down to take it, with Nico Hischier netting the winner with eight minutes left. It was one of the rare games this season when the Devils had to fight off an onslaught to hold their lead, but so they did. Only the Bruins have more points in the East.
Noise? Excitement? It used to be that the Devils craved not these things. After all, this is an organization still living off the reputation of a lack of action, of noise, of excitement. Success built on sucking out all of those things, with their trap and their goaltending and the idea that the best way to win hockey games was to make them the least amount of hockey possible and make oxygen hard to come by. That every inch of the rink had to be contested like it was holy land, and the puck was incidental. The Devils haven’t played like this in a long time, of course, but that’s still what most think of when they hear the name.
There probably isn’t a more opposed coach to that old Devils style than Lindy Ruff, who has gotten to let his team off the leash like he prefers finally. The offseason addition of John Marino on the blue line has given Ruff another option to take dungeon shifts and allowed Dougie Hamilton more freedom with his assignments to push the Devils all the way up the ice.
Hischier making the leap hasn’t hurt either, as he finally looks like the top-line center that a No. 1 overall pick should. Hischier has seen a huge jump in the shots, chances, and goals he and his line are producing, with Jesper Bratt on his wing as another weapon.
Which has meant that Jack Hughes has gotten to be a little sheltered on the second line. He’s at just about a point per game with the comfort.
There isn’t a dropoff anywhere on the roster, as anyone who has skated significant movements is carrying metrics that are way above water. Ruff in Dallas had a team that was run n’ gun as just about anyone we’ve seen in recent years, and it’s no different in New Jersey.
Sure, the goaltending isn’t good, but they could really be onto something if it improves with a return to health for MacKenzie Blackwood. Or maybe Vitek Vanecek just takes the job full-time in his absence, as his .915 save percentage suggests he probably should (though still below the line for expected goals saved).
But the vibes with the Devils are just so strong. This is a fanbase that has been waiting to not just have a winner but for a version of the Devils to shake off those shackles of the past. To re-identify the whole thing. It’s not quite showtime yet, and the idea of showtime in northern New Jersey is complete folly. But where there was once a void of intrigue or excitement, where the signs of life were the absence of color and vibrance, now there is juice and pops from the crowd. There is a din. There’s a feel, which portends to something even bigger and better.
The Devils are no longer an absence, a gap, ellipses. Nothing is permanent.
Original source here
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