Haggerty: These aren't the same old Devils

Haggerty: These aren't the same old Devils
May 30, 2012, 4:59 am
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To the casual hockey observer, the New Jersey Devils return to the Stanley Cup Finals isnt exactly a cause for celebration.

The sight of the Devils logo and uniform will elicit groans and memories of trap-happy game plans that nearly ruined the NHL.

The great Devils teams were the closest thing to hockey Ambien the NHL will ever see, and they were unfailingly proud of it.

Its a nod to the great Devils teams that hoisted the Stanley Cup three times over and dominated within rules that allowed them to strangle the daylights out of the opposition in the neutral zone.

Its the kind of consistent excellence that Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi is striving for with his hockey club on the West Coast, but of course accomplished in a different (read: more entertaining) way.

Darryl Sutter and I were walking through this building this morning and we saw all those banners up there. Thats pretty damned impressive, said Lombardi during Tuesdays Stanley Cup Final media day at Prudential Center leading up to Wednesday nights Game 1. Weve got a long way to go to get there. I know people say you cant do it in the Cap era and stuff, but I dont want to believe it.

I cant stand this fantasy hockey stuff where youve got new players moving in and out every single season. The goal is to be like the Devils with all those banners up there.

While its true the 40-year-old goaltender remains the same in Martin Brodeur as the lone Jersey holdover from previous Cup glory, this Devils team isnt your fathers East Rutherford Devils.

Theyre not even your crazy uncle Charlies Devils.

They still have Brodeur between the pipes and rely on a sound defensive system preached by head coach Peter DeBoer. But thats where the similarities end between this years Devils hockey club and their very successful puck ancestors.

The Devils have evolved and adapted from their conservative trapping style, and turned into a team equipped for a league now built on speed, youth, toughness and explosive playmaking. It was a long time coming, but then put into fast forward mode when Lamoriello engineered a deal for Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk.

I dont think thats the way we play. Were an up-tempo style and I dont think anybody would compare us to those Jersey Cup teams, said Devils defenseman Peter Harrold. We play solid defensively and thats obviously the bedrock of the organization. But I think we are kind of in-your-face, I think were kind of aggressive and were trying to push the pace of play when we can.

If people think that way about us then theyll see the difference when we play in Game 1. The Kings and our team play similar styles, so it will be a good match.

Both the Devils and the Kings are averaging a shade under 3 goals per game during the playoffs, and rank only behind the Penguins and Flyers in playoff offensive output as the only teams left in the tourney.

The Devils finished middle of the pack during the regular season with 2.63 goals per game, and enjoyed excellent offensive years from Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise.

The current cast of Devils players know they might be associated with the trappist ways of their Cup-winning forefathers, but that is likely going to change soon.

Nobody is going to fall asleep watching New Jersey play these days, and this team has a chance to change the Devils narrative once and for all.

The offensive players, really, they didnt say anything about our style of play certainly, but I think their styles sort of really told us without saying anything that we should open things up offensively, said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. I think we felt it. With the young players, we had Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Kovalchukyou have to give them what they have.

I always take offense to the teams that the people thought were defensivethose years they were always second or third in scoring. I always looked at the differential of goals that win championships. A lot of high-scoring teams can win games. I never worried about that.

From an opponents point of view, Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi sees a team thats definitely a little more down with venturing into the offensive zone.

The defense and goaltending has remained and its still important in New Jersey. I think those successful Cup teams had talent, but I dont think it was the kind of explosive talent they have in New Jersey now, said Scuderi. Parise and Kovalchuk are tremendous players that can change a game. Patrik Elias is a guy thats always gotten his point and his very skilled.

I havent seen a lot of Adam Henrique, but hes certainly added something to their top six. It seems they win a lot more now in the neutral zone moving forward in the offensive zone than they do hanging back in the defensive zone.

Lamoriello watched approvingly as Jacques Martin, Jacques Lemaire and a cast of defensive specialist coaches helped the Devils qualify for the playoffs in all but three seasons from 1988-2010. More importantly they captured three Stanley Cups in five Finals appearances during that span of consistently excellent hockey.

So trapping and playing shutdown hockey was a success, but it was also an effective strategy that was sucking the life force out of the NHL.

Even some of their current players couldnt disagree while growing up squirming in their chairs while watching New Jersey capture their Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. But some also gladly embrace the Go ugly or go home philosophy that worked so well for the Devils during the dead puck era.

It was effective. They got results. You cant knock them for that, said Harrold. They found a way to be successful. I dont see the down side of that.

But dont say that too loudly to Lamoriello. Hes got his finger on the trap button and hes ready to push it down with authority if the need arises or if his top forwards suddenly succumb to injuries in the next two weeks while doing battle with a physically engaging Kings bunch.

We would still have that style if thats what the players here needed to win, said Lamoriello. Were going to do whatever we need to do to win. Were not going to apologize for it.

Thankfully the Devils are no longer being asked to apologize for their style of play after loosening things up offensively. The Cup Finals could very well be their coming out party for those who havent bothered to notice just yet.