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Lemaire wills once last-placed Devils to brink of playoffs

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer

Can a coach of the year award go to someone whose team didn't make the playoffs?

For the record, that's never happened. And given the history, chances are it won't this season either. Still there's a case to be made these days for Jacques Lemaire, the 67-year-old Hall of Famer who has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player and a coach since the late 1960s.

New Jersey was 27 points out of a playoff position and last in the standings in early January. (Getty Images)  
New Jersey was 27 points out of a playoff position and last in the standings in early January. (Getty Images)  
Lemaire stepped down from his second tour of duty as the New Jersey Devils coach after the team was eliminated from the playoffs after one round last spring, but went back behind their sinking bench around Christmas time. Since then he has engineered a resurrection of epic proportions, one that until recently went mostly unnoticed because the Devils seemed too far back in the standings for it to matter.

Maybe they still are. The Devils have only 20 games left to climb over five teams for a playoff spot.

But New Jersey was 27 points out of a playoff spot and dead last in the standings and just about every league stat category on Jan. 8, seven games after Lemaire replaced rookie John MacLean as coach. Now they are less than 10 points shy.

"In my whole career, I've never seen things turn around so much in a season. It's pretty amazing," said well-traveled veteran goaltender Johan Hedberg.

Especially when you consider the Devils were in "the gutter," as Martin Brodeur described it when the change was made. Their season had long before turned into a disaster with one superstar Zach Parise injured early for the duration and the other, Ilya Kovalchuk, crumbling under the weight of a $100 million contract.

Lemaire didn't have any immediate answers either, winning only one of those first seven games. But since then the Devils are 17-2-2 and have reduced the gap to eighth place by two thirds.

"Let's face it, Jacques is a very special coach," said Hedberg. "The way he works, the way he runs things, it's a total different feeling in the room and on the ice. The confidence is there.

"But that's no knock on Johnny Mac. He did everything he could."

Many of the Devils said the same thing when asked about their former coach's short tenure, blaming their miserable first half on everything from bad bounces to injuries to other assorted snafus. On anything other than the coach.

The only thing wrong with those theories is that New Jersey's personnel really didn't change much after Lemaire arrived. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded away just before the hot streak began, and a couple of kids were called up from the minors. But until Jason Arnott was rented out at the deadline, the Devils have essentially gone with the same lineup they've had since opening night.

They just never gelled until a coach with a pedigree took over from one with no previous NHL experience.

"Yeah, the difference from the first 40 games to the last 20 games has been unbelievable, but we had Jacques last year and we knew the style of hockey he wants us to play," veteran forward Patrik Elias said. "It's been a lot more about puck possession. Making plays shorter, little passes to each other, control the puck, it works for us better. That's the biggest difference. And defensive zone coverage. Everybody coming back, that helps."

Everybody including Kovalchuk, who in many ways has been the face of the Devils turnaround. Kovalchuk has scored 11 of his 21 goals during New Jersey's second-half run, four of them winners during, and put together a 12-game point streak.

But if Kovalchuk's offense has come around, so has his defense, with the high-scoring winger having a plus-10 rating during the streak after being minus-30 when it began.

"Jacques, he knows exactly what you need to tell guys to make things work," Kovalchuk said.

Must be since the Devils haven't been blowing many teams away with their offense. They have been playing much tighter defense, and with Hedberg earning league monthly star honors for his work in February while Brodeur was injured, they have been engaging in and winning low-scoring games.

Kind of like they did during the mid-90s when New Jersey popularized the trap under Lemaire and won a Stanley Cup in 1995.

"For sure that's traditional Devils hockey they're playing," San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle said after a recent 2-1 loss to New Jersey. "They slow things down, kind of bore you to death and wait for an opportunity, then they pounce. It's not pretty, but it's the way they win."

And if nothing else, that puts the Devils back in the playoff conversation. And for the right reasons. No one on the Devils is counting on a Miracle on Ice Part II, because the Devils would likely have to match their recent record over the final 20 games to have a realistic chance. But with each passing win, the possibility that one could happen remains.

For his part, Lemaire is just taking it a game at a time. He seems to be enjoying coming out of retirement more with each passing day, but not enough to commit to returning next season.

Or to take much credit for what he has done in this one.

"The coach is always as good as the players are," Lemaire said. "Here, the guys were working hard before but not playing together. In today's game you have to do that, and now they are."


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