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Losers No More, Devils Overshadow Rival Rangers and all the others

Brendan Smith was so happy the night the Devils came back from a two-goal deficit to beat Rangers at Madison Square Garden last month, he felt like he was floating on the ice in the dying seconds.

A former Rangers defenseman, Smith emerged as a central figure in the Devils’ breathtaking journey from oblivion to one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams, and the win was more than a comeback against a rival. . It was an early-season statement that the nitro-laden Devils, who finished 47 points behind Rangers last season, might have a brighter future.

That will be tested again on Monday in a rematch at Madison Square Garden, as New Jersey’s schedule intensifies.

Going into the game, the Devils are second in the NHL with a 21-5-1 record behind waves of electrifying young skaters, especially Jack Hughes, the 2019 first draft pick, an emerging superstar center who dances and dazzles with the puck on his stick to the delight of amazed onlookers.

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

For the opponents, these Devil teams were an easy win, 2 quick points to pocket before moving on to the next game.

“You tick them off as must wins when you play the Devils,” Smith recalled after a recent practice. “We would be upset if we didn’t leave with 2 points. This was an area we needed to change. Changing the culture and changing the mentality.

Change doesn’t seem like a good enough word to explain the Devils’ sudden metamorphosis from slug to hovering butterfly. They can play as fast, if not faster, than anyone else in the league – very different from the highly capable, but often laborious, defensive Devils of old.

Now they expect to win and that, for some longtime Devils players, has been a culture shock. Damon Severson, a defenseman drafted by New Jersey in 2012, said the Devils ‘cut out’ players (whom he chose not to name) who were content to come out after a 5-1 loss and devour cheeseburgers and fries, like nothing happened.

“It’s a blow to your ego,” Severson said of bad years. “You are a loser, you are no good. But the worst thing is that we had guys who didn’t really care in previous years. It would be like, “I know I’m not going to be here very long, so I’m just going to get my salary and hope we play well, then come home in the evening and everything will be fine.”

“It was a really bad culture and mindset that way. It’s good to see that we’ve turned that page around and brought in better guys and got rid of the problems.

Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he was not aware of any specific cases of player indifference. Nonetheless, he added several high-profile veterans to help create a more engaged and connected team atmosphere, including some who are very familiar with winning.

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

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

And for a team that went through seven goaltenders last year, Washington’s draft pick trade for Vitek Vanecek, who is fourth in the league in 2.30 goals-against average, helped change fortunes. Devils, for now.

Fitzgerald knew his team would improve this season. Last year, with the injured goalie treadmill, the Devils allowed 302 goals, the fourth most in the league. This year, they’ve given up among the fewest high-risk scoring opportunities and have one of the highest puck possession rates in the offensive zone.

This may just be the season when many of their top draft picks started to pay off. Since 2017, New Jersey has selected the first pick twice and also drafted the 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 to get there, but we didn’t know when. I can’t even say we’re there yet. But we play very well as a team.

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

“We’re still young,” said Hischier, a terrific two-way center. “But we are no longer young people. We have experience.

The frustrated fan base also expected progress this year and showed scathing impatience when the season got off to a bad start. The Devils lost their season opener in Philadelphia, and after the game Miles Wood, a left winger who has been with New Jersey since 2016, moaned that he was tired of being on a bad team. .

Two nights later, when the Devils lost their home opener, Lindy Ruff, the head coach, caught the merciless end of the spectators’ anger by chanting “Fire Lindy.” It was the low point.

But just under a month later, during a franchise-record 13-game winning streak, fans chanted “Sorry Lindy,” a remarkable mass mea culpa from a grateful passionate fan base. his desperation. When that streak ended in the next game, against the Maple Leafs, the fans who were now so used to winning, bombarded the ice with full beer cans after three goals disallowed by the Devils.

“They’re tired of losing,” Ruff said after practice last week. “My job is to put the tough skin on and keep moving forward. We haven’t changed anything. We said, keep doing the right things and we’ll win hockey games.

They did so at a remarkable pace, becoming only the sixth team in league history to win 21 of their first 26 games and the first to win 13 games in November. Hughes was electrifying, never more so than when he hauled the puck into a box of four Chicago defensemen on Tuesday, spurted it out and made a perfect pass to Dougie Hamilton, who scored on a one-timer.

There are plenty of other such highlights and Hughes, just 21, leads the Devils with 14 goals and 33 points. He is on course to break Patrik Elias’ club record of 96 points and bears all the hallmarks of a future superstar.

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

The only thing better than one Hughes on the list is two. The Devils drafted Hughes’ younger brother, Luke Hughes, with the fourth overall pick last year. A stunning second-year defenseman at the University of Michigan, Luke Hughes could join the club in April and possibly move into his brother’s apartment.

Palat, who underwent groin surgery, could also be back in the new year, in time for what is expected to be the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. That would be especially satisfying for Devils players the older, like Wood. The past four seasons have been agonizing, especially with the Islanders and Rangers making it to the conference finals in successive years.

Now it may be the Devils’ turn.

“If you had told me we would win 13 times in a row, that would have been an exaggeration,” Wood said. “But I know this team has the talent to be where we are now.”

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