Devils doing better than expected

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At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector's NHL Blog on Yardbarker.com for NHL rumors and analysis.

Heading into this season, few hockey experts predicted the New Jersey Devils might once again battle it out for the lead in the Eastern Conference standings. At best they were predicted to finish no higher than fifth, at worst 13th overall and out of the postseason for the first time since 1996. Yours truly predicted back in September they'd likely finish seventh, citing new head coach Jacques Lemaire's emphasis on defense, which might adversely affect their offensive production. Plus, the team lacks a quality back-up for aging starting goaltender Martin Brodeur that could hurt them as the season wore on. Two months into the 2009-10 campaign, however, the Devils are jockeying with the Washington Capitals and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins for top stop in the East. Their 17-6-1 record after 24 games ranks not just among the best teams in the Eastern Conference but also among the best overall in the league. So how are the Devils bucking the predictions of impending doom thus far? As expected, Lemaire in his return has carried on the tradition of defensive hockey the Devils have been known for, which began under his coaching back in the early 1990s when the club made its rise to prominence. By the end of November, the Devils had given up the fewest goals, the sixth-fewest shots-against and had the ninth-best penalty kill, a tribute to their overall team defensive game. Another reason, of course, is the seemingly ageless Brodeur, who shook off a slow start to lead the league by the end of November in wins with 15. He also had the third best goals-against average (2.05) and was tied with St. Louis' Chris Mason for the fifth-best save percentage (.925). Offensively, the Devils ranked 20th overall in goals-for and 14th in shots, which puts them in the middle of the pack, but a rash of injuries to several key players could also account for those stats. It's particularly noteworthy how the Devils remained among the best teams in the league despite their injury woes. Their defensive numbers were more impressive considering they've been without two of their best defensemen in Paul Martin (broken left arm) and Johnny Oduya (lower-body) since late October. The forward lines have also been bitten by the injury bug. Veteran scoring forward Patrik Elias missed the first month and a half of the season and only recently returned to the lineup. Centers Rob Niedermayer and Dainius Zubrus are currently sidelined while up-and-coming winger David Clarkson recently injured his ankle and is out four to six weeks. Losing players of that caliber would be disastrous for most teams but as we've seen so often over the years, the Devils, thanks to their depth, have been able to overcome injuries. Veteran center Brian Rolston summed it up best in a recent interview, citing the club's consistency and team play from the veterans to the call-ups from the farm team. As always, the Devils team system continues to pay dividends. It also helps when they've got a young, under-rated superstar in Zach Parise and a rising talent in linemate Travis Zajac. Parise, 25, was among the league's leading scorers last season with 94 points and was a Hart Trophy finalist as league MVP. This season with 30 points in 24 games, he's on pace for a career-best 102-point season, which would again put him among the league's top offensive players and could garner a Hart nod. The 24-year-old Zajac, with 22 points in 24 games, is on pace for a career-best 75-point performance and appears to have silenced his doubters. Their performances were a major reason the Devils had the 10th-best power-play by the end of November. Meanwhile, Elias had 10 points in as many games since his return. Putting him with fellow veterans Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner have given the Devils a lethal second line, which could result in an improvement in their overall offensive stats in the coming weeks. Injuries to Martin and Oduya, meanwhile, have created the opportunity for blueliner Andy Greene to step into the fore. After posting up a total of 25 points in his past three seasons, Greene currently has 12 points in 21 games and is on pace for a career-best 45 points. Stay-at-home defender Bryce Salvador has also stepped up and has been a blueline stalwart this season. The Devils are close to getting more of their injured players back within the next week or two as Niedermayer and Oduya are projected returning soon. Of course, two months doesn't make a season and a lot can happen to the Devils between now and April. More key players could be injured. The production of Parise and Zajac could cool. Brodeur could risk burning out if he continues to see the bulk of the starts. It's possible the Devils could slump and slide down in the standings, perhaps battling by season's end for one of the last playoff berths in the East. Given their performance in recent weeks, however, one shouldn't be too hasty to write them off. Reports of their potential demise were obviously premature.
Tagged: Devils, Penguins, Capitals, Predators, Brian Rolston, Rob Niedermayer, Jamie Langenbrunner, Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Bryce Salvador, Dainius Zubrus, Paul Martin, Zach Parise, Johnny Oduya, Andy Greene, David Clarkson, Travis Zajac

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