Almost two weeks ago, it seemed the New Jersey Devils would do the impossible. An improbable run to the playoffs seemed destined with the second-half run they put together. Analysts jumped on their bandwagon, fans got excited, and even Ilya Kovalchuk scored a few goals.
The Devils, left for dead in January, went into Ottawa last Friday with the possibility of moving within four points of a playoff spot. The four games that followed would determine whether they could complete one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
But that Disney-movie ending wouldn't come. Instead, New Jersey dropped four of their five road games, coming back home with their playoff chances all but done. Despite the recent turn of events and the inevitable disappointment of missing the playoffs, New Jersey needs to be recognized for their stellar turnaround and refusal to quit on a damned season.
The turnaround began with the hiring of Jacques Lemaire. The former coach, brought in to replace John MacLean on December 23, walked into a dumpster fire. The Devils resembled nothing of the perennial playoff contender they've become. The forwards couldn't score, the defense was porous and the goaltending was atrocious. They sat last in the league, and looked to be in seller mode after dealing captain Jamie Langenbrunner to the Dallas Stars.
Then the turnaround happened. It was modest at first, featuring two big offensive performances in back-to-back wins against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those wins seemed to propel New Jersey to their scorching second half. The wins came in bunches, the good times rolled, and the team watched themselves slowly climb up the standings. Rookies scored big goals, Kovalchuk returned to his goal-scoring ways and the tandem of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg gave the team the spectacular goaltending its used to seeing.
As the wins piled up, hope rose throughout the organization. Maybe the team could complete the comeback. They could possibly push themselves into the playoffs. Every game took a postseason feel, with one-goal wins and dramatic overtime finishes. Each Kovalchuk game-winner brought a roar from the timid left-winger and a celebration worthy of postseason wins.
But the inevitable happened - the Devils hit a lull. After scoring just one goal against the Senators, the team's offense disappeared. In the next six games, they scored five goals. They dropped consecutive games for the first time since January, and old frustrations began to mount. As their playoff deficit grew, the team's offensive play worsened. New Jersey is now mired in a long scoreless streak spanning three games and 173 minutes and 55 seconds. They now sit three points away from elimination.
New Jersey expects the playoffs every season, and they've generally delivered on that promise. The 13 consecutive playoff appearances was second on the list of longest streaks in the NHL. But it'll likely end this season, forcing the team onto the links way earlier than expected.
The failure to reach the playoffs shouldn't cast a negative light on the good of this season. The Devils showed the potential on their roster during their second-half tear. Lemaire restored the solid defensive play and reunited the team. He tapped into Kovalchuk and brought back his confidence. He made Brian Rolston a consistent scorer. He compiled four solid lines, something missing the first half of the season.
It's not just the Lemaire effect that should have people excited for the future. The play of several Devils' rookies shows a promising future. Mark Fayne has played in 50 games, becoming a regular along the blue line. Both Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson have flashed their offensive ability, with the former looking like he can develop into a big-time scorer. Nick Palmieri became a first line forward, scoring some big goals along the way. Even defenseman Matt Taormina, who injured his ankle in November, played well in his rookie season.
The overall picture shows just the failure to make the playoffs. But the impressive second-half turnaround should not go unnoticed. Despite the comeback falling short, all hope wasn't loss on the Devils 2009-2010 season.