Losers No More, Devils Over Shadow Rival Rangers, and everyone else

Brendan Smith was so happy on the night he came back from two goals down against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden last month that he felt like he was floating across the ice in the final seconds.

A former Ranger defenseman, Smith has emerged as a central figure in the Devils’ stunning journey from obscurity to one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams, and the win represents more than just a comeback against a rival. Early reports indicated that the nitro-charged Devils finished 47 points behind. Rangers last seasonThere may be a bright future ahead.

As New Jersey’s schedule intensifies, it will be tested again in Monday’s rematch at Madison Square Garden.

Heading into the game, the Devils were second in the NHL with a 21-5-1 record behind a wave of young, electrifying skaters, most notably Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall draft pick from 2019. A budding superstar center Dazzling with his stick dance to the delight of the amazed audience.

The Devils are already within six of last season’s 27 wins, another in a string of lackluster, losing campaigns. The recent Devils weren’t bad, they just looked hopeless. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, New Jersey has made the playoffs just once and finished last or second-to-last in its division in eight of the last nine years.

For the opposition, those Devil teams were an easy win, getting the Pocket a quick 2 points before moving on to the next game.

“When you play the Devils you have to beat them,” Smith recalled after a recent practice. “If we don’t come away with 2 points we’ll be upset. That’s the part we have to change. Change the culture, change the mentality.”

Change doesn’t seem like an adequate word to explain the Devils’ sudden metamorphosis from slug to soaring butterfly. They can play as fast or faster than anyone in the league – a stark contrast to the more successful, but often smarter, defensive Devils.

Now, they expect to win, which has been a culture shock for some longtime Devils players. Damon Severson, a defenseman drafted by New Jersey in 2012, said the Devils “weeded out” players who walked out after a 5-1 loss and were content to eat cheeseburgers and fries. had happened

“It’s a shot to your ego,” Severson said of the bad years. “You’re a loser, you’re not good. But the worst part about it is that we had some guys in previous years who didn’t really care. It was, ‘I know I’m not going to be here long, so I’m going to get my paycheck, we’re going to play well, and then Let’s go home at night and hope it’s all hunky dory’.

“It’s a very bad culture and mentality. It’s good to see us turn around and bring in some good people and get out of trouble.

Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils general manager, said he was not aware of any specific cases where players were not concerned. Nevertheless, he brought in a number of well-respected players to help create a more solid and connected team atmosphere, including some who knew success well.

Smith is one of them, along with Ontrej Balat, who is now injured but won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. Also, John Marino, a defenseman acquired in an off-season trade, has gone to the playoffs in each of his previous three seasons in Pittsburgh, and Erik Haula played in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I value championship pedigree,” Fitzgerald said. “We want people who are good, caring, take pride in their work and are willing to self-evaluate and want to excel.”

For a team that cycled through seven goalies last year, trading draft picks to Washington for Vitek Vanecek, who ranks fourth in the league with a 2.30 ERA, helped turn the Devils’ fortunes around.

Fitzgerald knew his team would improve this season. Last year, with a conveyor belt of injured goalies, the Devils gave up 302 goals, fourth in the league. This year, they have one of the highest percentages of puck possession in the offensive zone, giving up very few high-danger scoring opportunities.

This may have been the season where many of their high draft picks began to pay off. Since 2017, New Jersey has had the top pick twice, drafting seventh, fourth and second.

“When you’re at the bottom of the barrel for years, you get a lot of choices,” Hughes said. “We hoped we’d get there, but we didn’t know when. We can’t even say we’re there yet. But we’ve been playing well as a team,” he said.

Nico Hisier, the No.1 in 2017, was named captain in 2021, when he was just 22 years old. But this year, Fitzgerald said Hischier has grown even more.

“We’re still young,” said Hisier, a fearsome two-way center. “But we are not young anymore. We have experience.”

A frustrated fan base was also hoping for improvement this year and showed serious impatience when the season started badly. The Devils lost their season opener in Philadelphia, and lefty Myles Wood, who has been in New Jersey since 2016, lamented that he was sick of being on a bad team.

Two nights later, when the Devils lost their home opener, Lindy Ruff, the head coach caught the brunt of the audience’s ire when he chanted “Fire Lindy.” That was the low point.

But a month later, during a franchise-record-tying 13-game hitting streak, fans chanted “Sorry Lindy,” acknowledging the frustration of a passionate fan base. After the streak ended in the next game against the Maple Leafs, fans, now accustomed to winning, He threw snow with full beer cans After three Devils goals were disallowed.

“They lost enough,” Ruff said after a practice last week. “My job is to put on the tough skin and move forward. We didn’t change anything. We said, keep doing the right things and we’re going to win hockey games.”

They are on pace to become the sixth team in league history to win 21 of their first 26 games and the first team to win 13 games in November. Hughes was more electrifying than carrying the puck in the box of four Chicago defenders on Tuesday, breaking out and making a perfect pass to Ducky Hamilton, who scored on a one-timer.

There are more such highlights, and the 21-year-old Hughes leads the Devils with 14 goals and 33 points. He is on pace to break Patrick Elias’ club record of 96 points and bears all the hallmarks of a future superstar.

“He’s already close to it,” Ruff said. “Every year, I’ve seen growth. He surprised me last year when he scored 26, and he continues to surprise me. He’s got skating ability and lateral movement on the ice that very few people have.

The only thing better than one Hughes on the list is two. The Devils took Hughes’ younger brother Luke Hughes 4th overall last year. Luke Hughes, an eye-popping sophomore defenseman at the University of Michigan, could join the club in April and move into his brother’s apartment.

Ballad, who underwent hip surgery, could be back in the new year, in time for what should be the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. That would be especially satisfying for a longtime Devils player like Wood. The last four seasons have been painful, especially Islanders And the Rangers would go on to the conference finals in consecutive years.

Now, maybe it’s the devils turn.

“If you had told me we would win 13 straight, it would have been a stretch,” Wood said. “But I know this team has the talent to be where we are right now.”

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