Same Old Boring New Jersey Devils? You Haven't Been Watching This Season

It's been said that hockey fans have an inferiority complex. If that's true, Devils fans are doubly tortured, as they and their team are the subject of abuse among league loyalists. We're blamed for the degradation of the NHL, the perception that hockey is boring, and indirectly causing not one, but two labor stoppages.

And yeah, maybe the Devils have leaned on defense a lot over the years, but they've also succeeded with offense (in 2000-2001 they led the league with 295 goals). When they hired coach Brent Sutter in 2007, it was supposed to be a new era for the Devils -- new arena, new emphasis on offense, yet the results were depressingly same-y -- 206 goals (2.51 per game).

But in Sutter's second year, the team is making those old knocks on the Devils irrelevant (unless you've got some attendance jokes, in which case the dead horse is over there in the corner).

Through 31 games, the Devils have 99 goals (3.2 per game), good enough for 10th in the league, though every team above them except the Blackhawks has played more games. That's a pace of 262 goals, 15 better than the "amazing" offense the Penguins put together last year. In December, the team is averaging 3.9 goals per. And they're doing it in flashy ways.

So, um, why? How?

Yes, the Devils were active in free agency (by their standards, anyway), including bringing back Brian Rolston. But they're largely scoring with the same players they had last year; Rolson missed 18 games with injury and only has three goals, and additions to the '08 roster in general have only accounted for six of the team's goals.

Some might say Zach Parise's ascension into elite forward has made the difference, and that certainly plays a part. Parise has not only stepped up the scoring (fifth in the league in goals so far), but he's re-energized the long-dormant Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta.

Another, more subtle reason is better, more liberated play from the team's defensemen. Though they don't have a Scott Niedermayer (or a Brian Rafalski, for that matter) in this crew, they've got some guys who can join the rush. Sutter has for the first time given them permission not only to jump up with the forwards but, more shockingly, take gambles pinching in on the offensive boards, a radical development for a team who has traditionally anchored its blue-liners on the blue line, poised to retreat at the first sign of an oncoming rush. As a result, plays are prolonged and guys like Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are making increased contributions.

Finally, there's no Martin Brodeur. While this, on the surface, seems like a detriment to the defense more than a boost to the offense, Brodeur has been so spectacularly reliable throughout his career that it's obvious recent Devils teams have taken him for granted. This has been especially true of the last two seasons, when the team seemed content scoring a goal or two and relying on Brodeur to stand on his head, an attitude that caught up to them and led to exhaustion on Brodeur's part once the playoffs came around. With Scott Clemmensen in net, there's now a sudden urgency to pick up the slack that hasn't been there in a while.

The result? A weird feeling in the belly of Devils fans. In recent years, any opposing team scoring the first goal was pretty much a bell ringing out that the high point of the night would be that game's installment of Chico Eats. Now? Some sort of strange feeling -- hope? confidence? optimism? -- that each game really is 60 minutes long (or longer), that no deficit is insurmountable. The resilient 8-5 win over the Rangers earlier this month was watershed. Sure, it wasn't the most efficient game the team has ever played. But they scored a bunch of goals. And when the Rangers, owners of like 74 straight wins over the Devils at the time, caught up and the Devils needed to score more, they did.

Who knows if the team will keep up this pace all season long, especially when Brodeur returns. Still, through three months of this NHL season, the Devils are no longer representative of all that is wrong with the NHL. It's enough to make you believe their satanic namesake is frolicing in snow right now.

Same Old Boring New Jersey Devils? You Haven't Been Watching This Season originally appeared on NHL FanHouse on Tue, 23 Dec 2008 18:30:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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