Buy in. It’s what every executive, every coach, every leader seeks from his charges. Perhaps nowhere is “buy in” more important than in team sports, where one player not believing in the coach’s concept can sabotage an entire squad.
The New Jersey Devils advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night, defeating the heavily-favored and overconfident Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 in Game 5. New Jersey made quick work of their Atlantic Division rivals, using a combination of clean, physical forechecking, timely scoring, contributions from the whole roster, and professionalism to dispatch a Flyers team that just couldn’t seem to get going.
The victory, which propels New Jersey into the conference finals for the first time since 2003, was a near-perfect team effort, and an affirmation that not only was Peter DeBoer the right man for the head coaching job, but that the players on the team completely buy into what he teaches.
The Devils smothering forecheck, which held the Flyers shotless for huge chunks of minutes throughout the series, was something DeBoer consistently preached to the team, even coining the “Swarm It Up” slogan that the players adopted as their playoff mantra.
“Swarming” is an excellent adjective to describe how the Devils have played the puck this postseason, particularly in the Philadelphia series, frustrating their opponents and leading to unexpected scoring chances. It’s grueling, dirty work, but everyone from the stars to the fourth line players have bought into the philosophy, and it’s paid dividends. David Clarkson’s go-ahead goal in the first period was an excellent example of the type of hockey DeBoer demands: forechecking, hustle, and never giving up on a play.
“He deserves to score that kind of goal,” said Ilya Kovalchuk, “Clarkie goes into those kind of areas to get those goals and he deserves it.”
It’s not been uncommon during these playoffs to see a superstar like Kovalchuk, once considered a selfish player, to forecheck hard and play tough along the boards, not exactly the work of a superstar sniper only concerned with getting himself shots. Under DeBoer’s steady hand, Kovalchuk has become a leader on a team full of them.
DeBoer himself credited the team’s ability to stick to the game plan, which included not retaliating to the sometimes less-than-clean play the Flyers exhibited. In fact, DeBoer publicly stated that he had asked Clarkson to move away from the tough guy/agitator roles he often plays in the regular season for the Flyers series. To his credit, Clarkson did, and it paid off for the team. New Jersey mostly stayed out of the box and the Flyers seemed to frustrate themselves trying to bait the Devils into stupid penalties.
“We recognized early in the series what we needed to do to be successful and we just kept bringing that game to the rink.” DeBoer said. “Philly pushed back very hard tonight and we weathered the storm, got some saves when we needed to and did what had to do to win.”
Perhaps there is no more ringing endorsement of the squad’s confidence in DeBoer and his system than that of future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur, who complimented DeBoer and the coaching staff after the win over Philadelphia.
“Our big weapon is the coaching staff,” Brodeur said. “I think they prepare us, they make changes to our system better than a lot of the coaches that I had in the past. And I think we were well prepared to do the things we need to do to be successful. Whoever we’re going to face in the conference final, I’m sure the coaching staff is going to prepare us as well they did against the two teams we faced so far.”
The Devils have shown what following a coach that preaches patience, hard work, teamwork and professionalism can accomplish. Because everyone on the roster buys what DeBoer is selling, they’re half way to those sixteen victories that will bring the Cup back to New Jersey.