Despite a rash of injuries to key players, this year’s NJ Devils are off to a good start: sixteen points in the standings, fifth place in their conference, playing disciplined defensive hockey and scoring big goals at key times in the game, witness Travis Zajac’s tying goal vs. Tampa Bay with 0.7 seconds left forcing O/T.
The one major quirk in those statistics is found in the home/away columns. The team is 7-0-0 on the road and 1-4-0 at home. Seven consecutive wins on the road to start the season is second best in the history of the NHL, tied with three other teams, the 1940 Maple Leafs, the 1985 Flyers and the 2005 Red Wings. The 2006 Sabres hold the record with ten straight wins to start that season. One win in five starts at home does not cut bait.
So why is the team struggling at home? Could it be that the fans and the team are haunted by the last two minutes of last year’s playoff defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes in their own house? Is that devastating moment when Carolina scored two goals in ninety seconds to eliminate the team from the Stanley Cup competition still so omnipresent in the minds of the fans that they don’t trust anything good that happens on the ice, that their expectations are all negative and that they are tentative in their vocal support for the team?
I think you had to be there to understand the impact of that Eric Staal goal with thirty seconds left in the game. I was there in my regular seats with my eleven-year-old son, Casey. When I looked down at him after the score there were tears streaming down his face. There was nothing to say to console him. That feeling permeated the crowd, the building, the team. When the final buzzer went no one moved. Eighteen thousand people could not will a change in score. The Devils were done, fried in their own juices. Slowly people turned and filed out of the building in a somber silent procession, stunned by a turn of events they could not compute but one they would never forget.
The Devils have beaten some high quality teams this year on the road: the Capitals, the Penguins, the Bruins. Now they must win some big games at home to win back the confidence of their fans, to revive the frantic chant “Go Devils GO”. Wednesday versus the Caps would be a god place to start.
In the Scott Stevens’ days of the “not-in-my-house” Devils, dominance at home was a given. The Devils played a “hard hit / turn over / quick shot” brand of hockey, dominating other teams with their toughness. With Randy McKay and Mike Peluso playing sheriff the bad guys wouldn’t dare attempt to intimidate the skill players on the team. No Devils fan can believe that the antics of Sean Avery waving his stick in Marty Brodeur’s face and then mouthing off nose-to-nose would not have earned him a severe well-deserved dose of whoop-ass by one of our then enforcers. What would have happened had Ken Daneyko been on the ice? Or Jim McKenzie? Or Kristof Oliwa? You get my point.
In his wisdom Lou Lamoriello has hired back Jacques Lemaire, one of the finest coaches the team and the league have ever known. If those memories of dominance were left behind in the Continental Arena we must then rely on Coach Lemaire to revive them, to bring them back to Newark so the team can sparkle at home to match their glorious brand new building. Go Jacques GO.