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May 26th
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N.J. Devils at Montreal Canadiens preview: Kovy and crew are playoff 'villains'

brodeurMartin011012_optBY SAM HITCHCOCK

The Devils keep cruising, and yet, no one seems to want to acknowledge their ascension. Martin Brodeur is once again playing like one of the best goalies in the NHL, making critical saves every game. Still, no national hockey writers seem to give his recent play a second thought. Kovalchuk has raised his game so much that one could argue he ranks among the top five forwards in the game right now. Nevertheless, he is disregarded the same way the Devils are routinely dismissed by the national hockey media as viable contenders in their conference.

Here are a few juicy statistics: Kovy (thank you reader for the spelling tip-off!) ranks in the top five in the NHL in points per game and goals created per game; is eighth in goals per game; and fifteenth in assists per game! How many other players in the NHL are in the top 15 in all four of those categories? One. And that player is the leading Hart Trophy candidate, Evgeni Malkin.

But the Devils’ rise has been a team effort, allowing just twelve goals in their past six games despite losing their best defenseman (Larsson) to injury. Still, the Devils’ treatment by the national media seems eerily similar to the disrespect the Giants faced this year. I know, different team, different sports, certainly different personalities and code of conduct toward the media, but the Devils seem to be flying so low under the radar it is almost comical.

Their last two wins, against the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks, capture this 2011-12 team perfectly. Neither win was pretty, they probably relied a little bit too heavily on Marty, they received outstanding production from their special teams, there were moments in both games where fans were likely convinced they would lose, and their marquee guys stepped up and made the crucial plays needed to win both games.

The Devils will not win 22 straight home games this season, nor will they lead any afternoon broadcasts on NBC, but the team that was deemed to have no “all-stars” has some serious dark horse potential to emerge as the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals.

DeBoer and the coaching staff seem to be beloved by the players, and one of the reasons they perhaps seem so unified is that literally not one person who writes about the NHL seems to consider them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Playing the “us against the world” card can be a very powerful motivator. While the Devils may be less vocal than the Giants were about the extreme lack of media attention, one might surmise that this is partially fueling their surge in the standings.

While this would appear to be quite the quagmire, I do have some theories as to why everyone in the national media loves to diss the Devils and why Kovalchuk can’t get any love.

Why does every NHL writer in the national media discount the devils' chances in the playoffs? 

My hunch is it goes back to Jacques Lemaire’s days of coaching the team, when he enforced the much publicly maligned “neutral zone trap.” Quick refresher: the neutral zone trap is when a team attempts to force turnovers by its opponents in the neutral zone by sending one forechecker in the offensive zone and clogging the space between the blue lines.

Yes, the Devils enforced this strategy a decade ago, and it brought them tremendous success. Hockey elitists claimed it ruined the ebb and flow of the game, and when NHL ratings went down before the lockout, the Devils received the brunt of the blame.

After the NHL lockout, rule changes were made to eliminate this style of play from the NHL. Keep in mind, the Devils instituted this in the Lemaire regime over a decade ago (and as Larry Robinson has noted, the neutral zone trap has existed since the 1970’s).

Yet, when listening to the broadcast from Steve Cangialosi and Chico Resch during the Devils’ victory over Buffalo, Chico recounted hearing the Sabres’ announcers during their pregame talk saying that the Devils still ran a neutral zone trap.

This suggests that, even though the team’s style of play could not be more different than in the Lemaire days, hockey personnel around the league still stereotype the Devils. It follows them like their Scarlet Letter. For a team that ranks 14th in NHL scoring and has the most aggressive penalty kill in the league, one hopes that members of the media who follow and love the game will start to appreciate the Devils for being a hard-working and exciting hockey club.

Why does the national media fail to give Ilya Kovalchuk the credit he deserves?

The NHL media clearly disliked the Kovalchuk free agency sweepstakes. NHL hockey is a Canadian-driven league and sport that prizes humble stars who stay loyal to their original teams (teams have failed to pry Shane Doan from Phoenix, Jarome Iginla from Calgary, and even recently Rick Nash was dead set on staying in Columbus).

For hockey purists, Kovalchuk’s free agency bidding resembled the free agency circus that came with LeBron’s decision and what very well could happen again this summer with Dwight Howard. When Kovy signed that monster deal with New Jersey, it was a dream come true for the hockey media. The selfish goalscorer who let his free agency become a national bidding auction went to the secretly hated Devils! It was a match made in heaven.

When Kovy struggled mightily in New Jersey’s infamous first 40 games last season, one could almost here the cackling of laughter from writers across the country as the team that ruined NHL hockey got their comeuppance with the NHL’s biggest free agency bust. The tide only started to turn after John MacLean was fired, and this season Coach DeBoer has Kovy playing his best hockey of his career on the NHL’s most underrated team.

Kovy, when he first arrived in New Jersey with his nine-figure contract, could only play one side of the ice (and even then he was not doing that well). He genuinely struggled to find his place and spot in New Jersey. But Kovy has earned his money this season playing two-way hockey and proving himself as one of the best forwards in the game. He has been a beast on the penalty kill, has improved his passing so much that he is one of the team’s and league’s best, and helps quarterback the ever-improving powerplay with Elias.

Now the Devils are off to Canada to battle against two playoff bubble teams, Montreal and Toronto, before facing the Western Conference juggernaut Vancouver. With the Devils winning seven of their last 10 (and picking up points in nine of their last ten), they have thrown themselves into the four-team fray of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and slumping Boston. They may win ugly, but as long as they continue to win, people will have to recognize them as legitimate Cup contenders -- although playing the villain role has suited the Devils just fine so far.


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