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Coldhearted: For the Love of the Devils

New Jersey's new look — and the rest of the week in playoff hockey

There are many odd things that have happened during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs — the quick dispatching of the Canucks and the Penguins, the late nights out in Scottsdale, Jay Beagle getting more ice time in a couple games than Alex Ovechkin — but among the more unexpected is this: Of the teams still alive in the postseason, the most fun to watch just might be … the New Jersey Devils?

I know, it’s a hard thing to grasp at first. Like driving on the other side of the road abroad or transitioning to a diet of veggies and nuts when all you’ve ever known is cheesesteaks and Oreos, you have to completely recalibrate. That’s because for so long, the word “Devils” has been lazy shorthand for defensive, “boring” hockey. Ask Devils supporters what the worst part of being a fan of the team is, and there’s an excellent chance they will talk about how often they have to endure people complaining that the team once “ruined the game.”

“It’s either the scourge of the NHL or a stroke of genius,” wrote Helene Elliott in the L. A. Times in 1995 of the Devils’ neutral zone trap while the team took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup finals back to Detroit New Jersey. “It’s either ‘destroy hockey,’ as Detroit Red Wing defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov disdainfully called it, or the ultimate strategy because its success depends on the discipline and selflessness of every player.”

Doesn’t that sound a little familiar? The Devils, who eliminated the Flyers four games to one on Tuesday night in Philadelphia, now await the winner of a Rangers-Capitals series that has turned into a festival of “selfless” shot-blocking. The Phoenix Coyotes, with a system that once helped make Ilya Bryzgalov seem elite, were “more disciplined defensively” than the Nashville Predators, whom they defeated in five games Monday night.

The Washington Capitals have embraced their complete Opposite Day of a season, going from one of the highest-flying teams in the league to one that collapses five guys around the net in their defensive zone and is content to dump and chase (and sometimes not even do too much chasing) on offense. The Rangers have played that same way all year. And even the L.A. Kings, who have finally regained their scoring touch, have long relied on their depth and defense. (It helps that they’ve got one of the game’s best goaltenders in Jonathan Quick.)

But while Phoenix has been an undisputed success story in terms of team construction and coaching, and while New York–Washington has been the closest second-round series, the objections are starting to rise that these teams are — pick your poison — “boring” or “unwatchable.” Mike Smith was proud when he called his team’s play “coyote ugly” after one Phoenix win, but there are plenty of critics out there who would probably throw around the same phrase with derision. Greg Wyshynski calls this “the great Dead Puck Era panic of 2012,” which, like all proper panics, he finds to be overblown: “[W]e’ve confused solid defense and great goaltending for a harbinger of trap doom.”

The Devils, meanwhile, who briefly brought the concept of “trap doom” to the NHL and have yet to escape the tired label, have built their recent success on an opposite concept: a full-steam-ahead forecheck that kept the Flyers way back on their heels. It’s a far cry from what the franchise has always been known for, and it’s one more quirk of a postseason that has been quite unexpected. But really, what postseason hasn’t?

When the Rangers scored last night with under a minute remaining to cut the Washington Capitals’ lead to 2-1, it was impossible not to think back to Monday, when Brad Richards’s goal with 6.6 seconds to play tied the game for the Blueshirts, who would go on to win in overtime. It was the second devastating loss of the series for the Caps, who were also on the losing end of triple overtime in Game 3.

But if there’s one thing at which the Caps have been exceptional lately, it’s bouncing back from bad losses, a skill developed during the playoff stretch run of the regular season, honed in the first round against Boston, and now fully on display versus New York. Goaltender Braden Holtby has yet to lose twice in a row. Alex Ovechkin went scoreless in Game 5 but scored almost immediately in Game 6.

But the Rangers, to their credit, have also been pretty resilient this season, which is why it’s not surprising that this series has seesawed so neatly back and forth. And so here we are, facing another Game 7 for New York and Washington, both of whom also went to the series limit in the first round. It’ll be the first time a seventh game of hockey will be played in New York City on a Saturday night, which mostly means the scene in Penn Station will be more drunken and stumbling than usual.

While I’m on the topic of scheduling, I should probably point out my own personal conflict: I’m a bridesmaid in my very best friend’s wedding this weekend, which is conveniently set to take place at the same time as the game. (Hey, remember when I said that April is a wonderful month to get married? Yeah, I take that all back.)

In many ways, this is a good thing. If the Rangers “suck,” in the words of their coach, the way they did Wednesday night, I’ll have plenty of alcohol and I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, singing heyyy-ooo, Galileeeeo1 and (fingers crossed) pigs in a blanket to distract me. If they w-n (I’m too nervous to type out the word), I’ll have all those same things to help me celebrate. Either way, there’s no question I’m waking up Sunday morning face-down on the golf course where the wedding is being held.

When I took to Twitter last night to express my desire for some sort of Secret Service–style headset with which I could surreptitiously listen to the game on the radio while ooh-ing and ahh-ing over my best friend and her groom, I got some awesome responses from people who have done similar things. I won’t link to the individual accounts so as not to incriminate the fanatic, but here is a sampling:

As a first year law student way back in ’91 I used one of those to listen to game 4 of the ALCS during class #gottadowhatyagottado

1990 I was 13, snuck a tiny radio & headphones into cousin’s wedding for Bulls-Pistons Eastern Conf. Finals. No regrets.

In HS, once listened to a Bulls playoff game on stage at an honors assembly. Gave updates to friends. Can be done!

Man, sports fans are really the best-slash-the-worst, you know? No wonder the nonbelievers find us such fools. But one guy — a Caps fan — summed it up to me well:

You’re at a wedding, I’m graduating my masters. We will somehow watch the game, because hockey is thicker than blood.

Lighting the Lamp: The Last Few Days’ Sickest Snipes

It took Alex Ovechkin just 90 seconds to get the first goal of the must-win Game 6 for Washington. “Not the right guy for us to leave alone in the slot like that,” lamented Henrik Lundqvist after the game, of Ovi’s power play goal. It was the 30th playoff score of Ovechkin’s career, tying him with Peter Bondra for the most by a Capital and giving him a goals-per-postseason game average of .60, one of the best in league history.

But it was the goals that he didn’t score on Wednesday night that were possibly more memorable. He nearly doubled the Capitals’ lead in the first period with this falling-down attempt that rang off the crossbar, and with 15 minutes to play in the game he gained the zone, was hauled down by the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, and did what I can only describe as a sit-and-spinorama. (I was just about to make a joke about how this proves that he’s lazy — he won’t get off his butt! — but there’s an 80 percent chance that some fusty columnist has already argued that in earnest.)

Other notable goals included Marc Staal’s overtime game-winner for the Rangers,2 Martin Hanzal’s series-clinching score for the Phoenix Coyotes, and Ilya Kovalchuk’s fifth goal of the playoffs, which like so much of his play this ever-ongoing season was an absolute beauty.

“For the first time in nine years I’m not going to the World Championship,” said Kovalchuk, who had never won a playoff round until this season and so typically spent his months of May representing Team Russia in international competition. “It’s fun. Everything is happening for the first time. We’ll see where it ends up.”

Piling On the Pylons: The Last Few Days’ Worst Performers

Is it just me, or have these playoffs been disproportionately filled with well-intentioned goalies trying to stickhandle the puck, to their peril, as the blooperific blasts of Yakety Sax fill the arena? OK, maybe not that last part, but the song certainly has been playing in my head a lot this postseason3 and especially in the last couple of days.

Like when I see normally economical-in-movement Henrik Lundqvist half-falling down while trying to clear the puck, as he did Wednesday night …

Or the usually highly stick-skilled Martin Brodeur fumbling on an attempt of his own during Tuesday’s Game 5 … 4

Or, earlier in the same game and far more destructively, Ilya Bryzgalov basically banking the puck off New Jersey’s David Clarkson during a clearing attempt and into the Flyers’ net for what would go down as the game-and-series-winning goal.

(I love the “Why would you DO THAT?” — it sounds like Cheryl Hines upbraiding Larry David for one of his social miscues.)

The Bryzgalov snafu was particularly frustrating because it made him the all-too-obvious goat. (And not just by the media: Asked about what happened after the game, veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen — who had passed his goalie the puck in the first place — said: “Ask Bryz,” a damning statement.)

Philly’s history of goalie problems makes that an easy leap of logic, while Bryzgalov’s monster contract — nine years, $51 million — makes it even simpler to point out just how disappointing he has been. “By the way,” mused Washington Capitals writer Ted Starkey, “Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith, and Martin Brodeur all make less than Ilya Bryzgalov combined.” (A reader replied: “You can add Braden Holtby to that list and there’s still some room.”)

All the blame isn’t entirely fair, though. Bryzgalov wasn’t necessarily good during the New Jersey series, but he wasn’t the team’s worst performer, either. Philadelphia’s loss to the Devils was a team-wide situation: inability to score goals, being overpowered along the boards and on the forecheck by New Jersey, bad passes, dumb penalties, and, perhaps most important, low expectations.

“I don’t think we thought we were going to win four straight,” Scott Hartnell said before Game 4, “but definitely they’ve played a lot stronger and a lot harder than [I] personally would have thought they’d come with.”

“I think we were thinking we were going to walk over to New Jersey and they’ll fall a little bit,” said the suspended Giroux, dressed in a suit instead of suited up, after his team was eliminated. Instead, it was Philadelphia that stumbled.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • While the Phoenix Coyotes and the L.A. Kings are waiting impatiently for the pesky Rangers and Capitals to get it over with already so they can begin the Western Conference finals, one San Jose Sharks writer, Ann Frazier, decided to take a deep dive into the roster construction of her team’s two more-successful-this-season division rivals. The result is a fascinating look (complete with graphics!) into how two teams with extremely different team-construction methodologies will now be colliding with a chance to head to the Stanley Cup finals. “The Kings are firm believers in trade first, ask questions later,” Frazier writes. “And once the questions are asked, the answer is always trade.5 The Coyotes, on the other hand, prefer to sign free agents or retain their original draft picks.” This is really cool stuff.
  • In their eight playoff wins, the Devils have had seven different players score the game-winning goals, with only Clarkson recording the GWG more than once (in Games 2 and 5).
  • Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Haviland was fired on Tuesday, leading to a number of eyebrow-raising reports about the state of the relationship between the team’s front office and its coaching staff. Anyone writing the story got an instant go-to buzzword when, during a quickly assembled conference call by Joel Quenneville on Tuesday night, the head coach said that there had been “some dysfunction” within the coaching ranks. “The word ‘dysfunction’ is an eyebrow raiser, because you so rarely hear coaches use it in relation to their staff,” wrote the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman. “But, it is the exact word that’s been used from the outside to describe what’s been going on in Chicago.”

    Friedman and ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers have two of the best takes on just how much internal dissent — over the ailing power play, over Patrick Kane, over the role that GM Stan Bowman should be playing on a day-to-day basis — has taken over the organization.

    For now, it seems like Quenneville, who has two years left on his contract, will remain with the Blackhawks. (Some had speculated that he might wind up the head coach of the Canadiens after Chicago’s former assistant GM Marc Bergevin, with whom Quenneville was close, took the GM job with Montreal.) But with Haviland gone, as Rogers writes, “now the blame — or credit — can fall squarely on Quenneville’s shoulders.” This oughta be interesting.

  • Top American NHL prospect Seth Jones — son of Popeye — announced this week that he will play for the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL rather than going the college hockey route and attending the University of North Dakota. Here are two informative reactions to the news.
  • When the Nashville Predators got knocked out of the playoffs Monday night with a 2-1 loss to the Coyotes that gave Phoenix the series in 5, it wasn’t an everyday end to the year. All teams deal with some summer reshuffling, but this offseason in particular will be filled with unknowns for the Predators — namely, the growing void surrounding star defenseman Ryan Suter. All season long the tenor had been that This Was It for Nashville: a chance to make a deep playoff push that would help entice the 27-year-old, who was selected seventh overall in 2003 (the year the draft was held in Nashville, no less) to re-sign with the team.

    But what began as a solid campaign with a 4-1 series win over Detroit dissolved into controversy and finger-pointing midway through Round 2. “I don’t regret anything,” GM David Poile told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun of the aggressive (and in some cases expensive) trade-deadline moves he made. “First of all, it was fun. To a man, we all felt we had a legitimate chance to compete with anyone. It was an exciting time, from the trading deadline on, with the additions that we made. It’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to try and compete.”

    On Wednesday, as the team gathered at Bridgestone Arena to pack up their stuff, reporters were told that Suter would not be addressing the media — an ominous sign. When he ultimately did speak with reporters, after waiting for TV cameras to go away, Suter said he would take some time off before making any decisions with respect to his pending free agency status. I’d be surprised if he didn’t test the waters this summer.

  • This video of Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and the Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog lounging on the couch and singing karaoke is oddly soothing. It must be Landeskog’s metronome-like toe-tapping or something.
  • Speaking of lovable foreigners, here’s a fun article about Artem Anisimov learning to speak English over the years. “‘On the ice, you don’t really know exactly what he’s saying,” says teammate Brian Boyle, “but you know where he is and you hear his voice.” (I’m dying to know what the “pretty simple hockey term used on a regular basis” was that Anisimov had to ask his AHL coach about during the 2007-08 season. I hope it was something like “breakout” or “forecheck” or “groupie.”)

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

There really hasn’t been all that much in the way of good playoff trash talk in the last couple of days. As closely fought as the Rangers-Caps series has been, it’s remained pretty respectful. Chris Stewart’s profane shushing on Sunday was diminished greatly by virtue of him and his St. Louis Blues being roughly an hour away from postseason elimination. And one of the very tenets of New Jersey’s philosophy in beating Philadelphia was to expressly avoid the between-whistles scrapping. Given the way the Flyers were able to poke and provoke the Pittsburgh Penguins right out of the first round, this was a smart move by the Devils.

Luckily, we have the International Ice Hockey Federation to fulfill our mouthiness needs. The worldwide governing body for the sport has a delightful nook on its website: power rankings for the World Championships, which feature many out-of-the-playoffs NHLers and are being held in Finland6 and Sweden right now.

These rankings “are distinct from the official standings and IIHF World Ranking,” the website helpfully explains. Which makes sense when you read the entries: the latest roundup includes analyses such as “USA: No biggie — we landed on the moon AND invented Britney Spears” and “CZECH REPUBLIC: We won, but Norway gives us Kafkaesque nightmares.” (And apparently these gems are nothing new — back in 2009 they were co-opting Obama catchphrases as well as saying, of lowly Denmark, “Less cream pastry next time.”)

Anyway, whoever writes these things ought to try to teach the Anaheim Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf, who is captaining Team Canada at the Worlds, a few tricks. On Monday it was reported that Getzlaf and his teammate Cory Perry got in a fight with some Finns while out at a bar.7 Getzlaf allegedly waved his fist in the air and yelled, “You do not want this!” Somewhere, a disgruntled Ducks fan looks at his stats from this season and can’t help but agree.

Hockey Haiku

Braden Holtby’s mom
So much Braden Holtby’s mom
Braden Holtby’s mom.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Hockey, Los Angeles Kings, Movies, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Teams, Ted

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes