Sutter: 'We've found our way'
New Jersey's current eight-game winning streak, which began Nov. 17 in Philadelphia, has gone a long way toward putting those early-season struggles in the rear-view mirror as the Devils have sped toward the top of the Atlantic Division.
Following a four-game sweep of their November road trip, the Devils returned home to win the first four games of a five-game homestand that concludes on Friday, Dec. 7, with Scott Stevens Hall of Fame Night against the Washington Capitals.
The Devils (15-10-2) moved into a three-way tie for first place in the division with the Rangers and Flyers after Wednesday's 4-3 overtime victory over the Boston Bruins.
Boston put up three goals in the first period, but New Jersey rallied with two in the second and one in the third before Patrik Elias netted the OT winner to complete the stunning comeback.
It was only the third time in the last six seasons that the Devils won a game in which they trailed by three or more goals.
The club is riding its longest winning streak since closing out 2005-06 with 11 straight victories, and for head coach Brent Sutter, those first nine games away from home proved to be an important learning experience.
His team finished two games under .500 in October before righting itself with a 9-4-1 mark in November and two straight wins to open December.
|Sutter led the surging Devils to a 9-4-1 record in November.|
New Jersey has gotten strong contributions from players like Zach Parise, who leads the team in goals (14), assists (18) and points (32), and goaltender Martin Brodeur, who has won eight straight, including two shutouts. New Jersey has outscored opponents 28-12 in its last eight games.
Parise has been particularly dominant of late, with nine goals in his last eight games, and 12 points (6g-6a) in his last five.
What also can't be underscored enough is the effect that newly-named captain Jamie Langenbrunner and defenseman Colin White have had since returning from injury.
Langenbrunner missed New Jersey's first 17 games while recovering from a groin ailment, and White needed 20 games to come back from an eye-area injury sustained in training camp.
Neither player wasted any time in making an impact.
Langenbrunner, who posted a career-high 60 points last season, scored 35 seconds into his return to the lineup on Nov. 14. In three games from Nov. 21-24, the native of Cloquet, Minn., assisted on six straight New Jersey goals, tying a franchise record (J. MacLean, 3/27-3/31/87).
White has helped revive the Devils' penalty kill, which held opponents' power plays scoreless in three straight games to begin the streak (0-for-13). New Jersey has allowed just three goals in its last 30 times shorthanded.
"We've found our way," Sutter said. "We started the year without Colin on defense, who can play on any team's top two defensemen. And we started without Jamie, who is a top six forward. You know, when you get those guys back, it adds experience. Marty is finding his way now and is playing extremely well.
"We're getting goaltending, getting injured guys back, and everyone's getting accustomed to each other and exactly how we want to play within the team concept. We're getting results from it. It's an everyday thing. We don't even talk about this [seven-game streak] or anything like that. We're just taking it a game at a time, and focusing on the next team we're going to play."
Much was made in training camp of what was perceived to be Sutter's intention to revise the Devils' trademark defense-first approach. Sutter tinkered with different line combinations, even temporarily splitting up checking specialists John Madden and Jay Pandolfo.
But the man who coached Red Deer (WHL) to the 2001 Memorial Cup Championship and guided Canada to gold in the 2005 and 2006 World Junior Championships believes that solid defense is what wins hockey games. The first-year NHL bench boss reiterated that the goal has always been to have his club play smart defensive hockey, while generating scoring opportunities through an uptempo forecheck.
"You have to be very, very good in your own zone, but we have changed how we play in the neutral zone and we have changed our approach on the forecheck," Sutter said. "It has allowed us to score some goals – more goals than we did at the start of year when we wanted produce more offense. We don't need to go into a game thinking we got to win tonight's game 1-0 or 2-1, because we know the game is going to be tight. But if we have to score the goals to get by, we have the capability of doing that because of our forecheck and the way we play in the neutral zone.
"Defensively, we're working hard together as a group and we're very sound in our zone. Any good defense is having good goaltending. We're getting that, too. The players now are really feeling accustomed to how we want to play and how we want to do things."
Now 27 games into the season, the Devils have had time to jell. The latest results suggest that things are back on track for a New Jersey squad that won its seventh Atlantic Division title last season.
But perhaps the best is yet to come for a group that continues to get acclimated to a new coach, new teammates and a new home at Newark's Prudential Center.
"Something everyone has to remember is that we have 10 different players on the team than were here last year. They come from different coaching, different systems. It takes a while to adjust to that. I'm not getting caught up in how many wins we have.
"We're just taking it a day at a time and doing what we need to do to give ourselves a chance for success every night."