The franchise may be set to crumble around them but the New Jersey Devils are one win away from their first Stanley Cup final since 2003 because the Lou Lamoriello Way prevailed.
Oh, there were some tough years for the Devils general manager since he guided them to three NHL championships and one Cup final in the years between 1995 and 2003. The team lost its way in the years following their last Stanley Cup, losing in the first round of the playoffs four times and not even making the playoffs last year.
There were whispers Lamoriello lost his fastball, that the legendary taskmaster was simply paying the inevitable price of spending 45 years in college and professional hockey. Lamoriello may turn 70 in October and he may have had trouble with the salary-cap system since it was introduced in 2005, a system he helped design, but those who underestimate him do so at their peril.
Ownership was the biggest problem for the Devils in the last 10 years, as the team was kicked around before former Lehman Brothers executive Jeff Vanderbeek took control. Under Vanderbeek, there was a disastrous move to the new Prudential Center in Newark where the Devils, never a strong gate attraction, struggled to sell tickets and now face bankruptcy at the end of the season.
But on the ice things are back the way they were in the salad days at Continental Airlines Arena in the middle of that huge tarmac among the freeways in lovely East Rutherford, N.J.
As with all Lamoriello teams, there are stars – this version has Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and, of course, the old standby Martin Brodeur – but none are bigger than the team, even if it did take Kovalchuk a while to realize that. There is also a coach, Pete DeBoer, who has the team playing a similar up-tempo style rooted in a strong defensive defensive game as those championship teams of yore. Those old teams, by the way, never got enough credit for their offence because of all the attention (and complaining) paid to their miserly defensive work.
The backbone of the team, though, are the ordinary grunts. In the early 2000s, players like Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Grant Marshall and Sergei Brylin did the defensive slogging in the trenches and chipped in with important goals in the playoffs when stars like Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias and Brian Gionta had trouble scoring thanks to the increased checking.
There was always a deep roster of talented and/or dedicated players, thanks to the drafting of Lamoriello’s most important aide, David Conte, who were taught the Devils system in the minor leagues and told to wait their turn. Familiarity with their teammates was never a big problem when it was time to slide them into the lineup because they had learned how the big team plays, a method now in use by many NHL teams.
This year’s version of the working stiffs who step into the spotlight is the Devils’ fourth line of Stephen Gionta, younger brother of Brian, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. They are the typical mix made useful by a good coach and GM. Gionta, 28, is technically a rookie who played all but one game this season for the Devils’ American Hockey League farm team in Albany. Carter, 28, is a journeyman centre now with his fourth NHL employer since 2006 and matched his career-high in goals with four in the regular season. Bernier, 27, was once touted as a big scorer but now secures his employment as a checker after washing out with four previous teams.
The line was put together as the regular season ended – Gionta got into the lineup when Jacob Josefson broke his wrist – and then found its legs in the playoffs. In 17 games, Gionta, Bernier and Carter have combined for eight goals and 15 points, culminating in Wednesday night’s winning goal by Carter in a 5-3 win over the New York Rangers that gave the Devils a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference final.
“That fourth line – you guys call them a fourth line but they play like a first line,” said Kovalchuk, who took a shift with them and set up Carter’s third-period goal along with Gionta.
Gionta says he would not be in this position if he had not learned how to play the Devils way in the AHL. After that, it was a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity when the bigger names run into the concentrated checking in the playoffs, just as previously unknown players like the Los Angeles Kings’ Dwight King or the Rangers’ Chris Kreider have done.
“The teams’ [are]definitely keying in on the top players,” Gionta said. “And if you make the most of the opportunity, anything can happen there.”
DeBoer says it also helps to not carry a star’s burden of expectations.
“You know, the guys you're talking about, that happens every year in the playoffs,” the coach said. “They definitely don't carry the pressure of the Kovalchuks or the [Mike]Richards, you know, that they're supposed to score every night.
“So when you get out there and you don't have that pressure on you, you know, a lot of times you find ways to stick the puck in the net. And that's a story every playoffs. There's some guys like that, and we're fortunate to have a few of them with us this year.”