Brendan Smith was so happy the night the Devils came back to beat the Rangers after two runs at Madison Square Garden last month that he felt like he was floating on ice in the final seconds.
A former Rangers defenseman, Smith has emerged as a central figure in the Devils’ incredible journey from oblivion to one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams, and this win is more than a comeback against rivals. represents. It was an early-season statement that the nitro-charged Devils, who finished 47 points behind the Rangers last season, might have a brighter future.
That will be put to the test again in a rematch at Madison Square Garden on Monday as New Jersey’s schedule heats up.
Going into the game, the Devils are 21-5-1 in the NHL, led by Jack Hughes, the #1 overall pick in the 2019 Draft, going 21-5-1. Pucks on sticks to the delight of astonished onlookers.
The Devils have already won six of their 27 wins last season. The Devils of late were not only bad, they were hopeless. New Jersey has only made it to the playoffs once since Stanley reached the finals of his Cup in 2012, and in eight of the last nine he has been from bottom or last in his division. finished second.
For their opponents, these demonic teams were an easy win, allowing them to quickly pocket two points before moving on to the next game.
“Whenever we play against the Devils, we’ll definitely check them out for a win,” Smith recalled after a recent practice. “If we didn’t get sent off by two points, we’d be upset. That was an area we had to change. Change the culture, change the mindset.”
Change doesn’t seem to be enough to describe the sudden transformation of the Devils from slugs to soaring butterflies. They can play faster or faster than anyone in the league—a far cry from the highly successful, but often flummoxed, defensive devils of old.
Now they expected to win, which was a culture shock for longtime Devils players. Defenseman Damon Severson, a 2012 New Jersey pick, said the Devils were content to gobble up cheeseburgers and fries like nothing after losing 5-1. (who did not name his name) were “eliminated.” Happened.
“It’s a blow to your ego,” Severson said of a bad year. “I know I can’t be here any longer, so I hope I get paid, I play well, and when I get home at night, all is well.” It’s like
“It was a really bad culture and mindset. It’s nice to see that we’ve turned the page and brought in better people and taken the problem out of it.”
Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he wasn’t aware of any specific cases where players didn’t care. , added some well-respected veterans to help create a more dedicated and connected team atmosphere.
Smith is one of them, and Ondrej Palat, who is currently injured, has won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. Also, defenseman John Marino, acquired in an offseason trade, has been to the playoffs in all of his last three seasons with Pittsburgh, and Eric Howrah has been in Vegas with his Golden Knights and Stanley in his Cup finals. I am participating.
“I value my championship pedigree,” said Fitzgerald. “We want good people, caring people, people who take pride in what they do, who are willing to value themselves and want to be better.”
And trading Vitek Vanecek’s draft pick to Washington, the fourth-most goals in the league against a 2.30-goal average for a team that cycled seven goalies last year, will change the Devils’ fortunes for now. It was useful for
Fitzgerald knew his team would improve this season. Last year, an injured goalkeeper’s conveyor belt caused the Devils to give up 302 goals, his fourth-highest in the league. They have given up their most dangerous scoring chances this year, and offensively he is one of the highest possession percentages of the puck in his zone.
This may have been the season when many of their high draft picks began to bear fruit. I’m here.
“When you have years at the bottom of the barrel, you get a lot of picks,” Hughes said. “We wanted to be there, but we didn’t know when. I can’t say we’re there yet. But we’re playing really well as a team.”
No. 1 pick in 2017, Nico Hisier was named captain in 2021 at just 22 years old. But this year, Fitzgerald said Hisire has grown even more in his role.
“We are still young,” said Hisiel, a great interactive center. “But we are no longer young. We have experience.”
The frustrated fanbase was also hopeful of progress this year and showed impatience when the season started poorly. Left fielder Miles Wood moaned that he was tired of being on a bad team.
Two nights later, when the Devils lost their first game at home, head coach Lindy Ruff caught the crowd’s fury at the cold end when they chanted “Fire Lindy.” It was the lowest point.
But just under a month later, during a 13-game winning streak that tied a franchise record, fans yelled, “Sorry Lindy.” This was a surprising and massive acknowledgment of the desperate situation from a devoted fan base. When that streak came to an end next week against the Maple Leafs, seasoned fans I threw ice with a can of beer After 3 goals of the devil not allowed.
“They’re sick of losing,” Ruff said after practice last week. “My job is to put on tough skin and keep moving forward. We haven’t changed anything. I told you that if you keep doing what’s right, you can win hockey games.”
They achieved this on a remarkable pace, becoming only the sixth team in league history to win 21 of their first 26 games, and the first team to win 13 in November. Hughes hasn’t been as emotional on Tuesday as he was when he carried the puck into a box of four Chicago defenders, popped out of it, and made a perfect pass to Dougie Hamilton, who scored on a one-timer.
There are many other such highlights, with Hughes, still 21, leading the Devils with 14 goals and 33 points. He is on pace to break Patrick Elias’ club record of 96 points for him and has all the markings of a future superstar.
“He’s already close to it,” Raf said. “Every year I’ve seen growth. He surprised me last year when he scored 26 points, and he continues to surprise me. He has the ability on the ice that most people don’t have.” It has skating ability and lateral movement.”
There are only two better than one fuses on the roster. The Devils drafted Hughes’ brother Luke Hughes with the fourth overall pick last year. Luke His Hughes, the University of Michigan’s eye-opening sophomore defense, is likely to join the club in April and move into his brother’s apartment.
Palato, who underwent groin surgery, could also return in the new year in time for the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. That would be especially satisfying for the Devils’ longest-serving player like Wood. His last four seasons have been agonizing, especially with the Islanders and Rangers making back-to-back Conference Finals appearances.
It may be the devil’s turn this time.
“If you said you were going to win 13 straight games, you wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Wood said. “But I know this team has the talent to be where they are.”