“Hope is a good thing, Red. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – Andy Dufresne [Tim Robbins]
Replace Andy with the New Jersey Devils organization and their optimistic fans, and replace Red with nearly everyone else involved with hockey and you can begin to understand the significance of this quote.
Refusing to give up, refusing to let go of the hope as small as it may be, is what has fueled the Devils’ second-half resurgence, and their subsequent return to respectability. The same will carried Andy through his time at Shawshank, and for the past two plus months, it is what carried the Devils.
Turn the calendar back to January 8th. The Devils have just suffered their 29th regulation loss of the season, and second in three nights to the Philadelphia Flyers. Jacques Lemaire has taken over coaching duties for the embattled John Maclean but has yet to turn the team around, posting a 1-7 record. Lastly, Jamie Langenbrunner was traded the night before back to the Dallas Stars for a conditional draft pick.
Fans were debating on who the Devils should take with their almost certain top four pick in the June NHL Entry draft while players and coaches alike still were trying to put a finger on what was ailing the team. There were very few believers, and too many doubters to count.
The following night, the Devils traveled to Tampa Bay to face a dangerous team in the Lightning. Rather than be mesmerized by their opposition and pack it in, the Devils stood up, met the Bolts head on, and finally began to click. They came from behind twice en route to an impressive 6-3 victory which many dismissed as a fluke, or the old cliché of “A blind squirrel can find a nut eventually.”
Five long nights later, the Devils traveled to Tampa for a rematch, which again they showed a completely different team than the one which had been playing for the first 41 games of the season. They again got the better of the Lightning notching another three goal victory, this time 5-2. While the team would fall the following night in overtime to the Florida Panthers, the point streak reaching three and their second two game winning streak of the season were something to be proud of.
That is, until the Devils began to demand more from themselves.
Over the course of the next four games, the Devils would earn victories over the Islanders, Penguins, Flyers, and finally, exact their revenge on Panthers. For the first time in over a calendar year, the Devils had not only won more than two in a row, but they also had won four straight and run their points per game streak to seven. It would stop there at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, but going into the All Star Break, something dangerous for the rest of the East had built inside the Devils’ locker room: hope.
As impressive of a month as January was, the Devils carried that momentum right into and throughout February, where they would go an astounding 10-1-1. Their 10 wins included contests versus Carolina, Tampa Bay and Montreal, and of course, two big victories over the rival New York Rangers. Their only losses came against Florida [in overtime, again] and Tampa in a very closely played contest.
The Devils have maintained their upward trend right into March where they’ve posted a 4-1 record going into tonight’s contest with the New York Islanders at the Prudential Center. First, the Lightning were again felled by the Devils, as they closed the season series going 3-1, scoring 14 goals while allowing only eight. Then Islanders and Penguins gave the Devils a serious challenge, but still were unable to better the team from the Garden State. In a rare disorganized effort, the Ottawa Senators became one of the few teams to get the better of New Jersey during their resurgence. Most recently, the Devils rebounded off the deflating loss to the Senators with another come from behind victory, this time against the Thrashers, who were setting out to not only put a nail in the post-season coffin for New Jersey, but to pull themselves closer to the playoff hunt.
The Devils sit only one win from reaching the .500 mark for the first time since opening night. They’re 8 points back of the Rangers, with two games in hand, making their continuation of this run even more critical. They do need some help, but as long as the Devils continue to focus on their team motto of “One Shift, One Period, One Game at a time,” they will stop themselves from going insane on scoreboard watching and maintain the focus which has brought them to this point.
Three months ago, and maybe longer, the playoffs were an impossible dream. Today, with 15 games to play and being only 8 points back in the race, a stark contrast to the 27 deficit on January 8th, there is still hope that they can complete this remarkable turnaround.
Maybe, just maybe, the Devils too can find their own paradise, just like Andy Dufresne.