Four days around the New Jersey Devils and I’m convinced: This is really a team more people should be rooting for.
They’re personable. They play hard. They also have a relatively exciting style that relies on a hard, two-man forecheck and creating turnovers that turn into offence.
They don’t, by the way, block many shots.
They have game breakers (Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk) and likeable pluggers (David Clarkson, Bryce Salvador, among others) and, of course, a 40-year-old legend in Martin Brodeur who is somehow looking spry again.
They even have a coach, in Peter DeBoer, who is a great success story after grinding out years and years in the OHL in relative anonymity.
(Asked about the penalty box getting stuck shut on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, preventing Travis Zajac from going in, DeBoer said, simply: “Yeah, I have [seen that before] I coached junior for 15 years. I’ve seen just about everything.”
The Devils are also an underdog, as a sixth seed, and still finding ways to dominate teams like the Philadelphia Flyers through hard work and win games.
“We started every series on the road,” Brodeur said after the Devils beat the New York Rangers to tie their series in Game 2. “If we don’t win on the road, we're in trouble.”
So why do I get the sense of either (a) apathy or (b) genuine dislike for this team?
Probably because of the jersey they wear.
Let’s face it, the Devils may have been the least popular team in this country over the decade between when they won their first Stanley Cup (1995) and their last (2003), as they became the face of the neutral zone trap and the Dead Puck Era.
(What many overlook is how high scoring some of those New Jersey teams really were. They had the second most goals in the league in 1998-99 and 1999-00 and then led the league a year later.)
Stylistically, they’ve changed considerably under DeBoer, but perceptions for franchises are often very hard to shake.
To many, the Devils are still this no-nonsense, Scott Stevens led defensive squad that celebrated its three Cup wins in the parking lot -- even though they’re now full of personality, led by Parise (who talked at length after Game 2 about how DeBoer pushes them to be aggressive in the offensive zone) and have a beautiful new rink that has a read-and-black pavilion out front to potentially parade around in.
Yes, this is another team with financial issues, with the new building not drawing as many fans as they’d like.
Yes, they’re low on Canadian content, with Clarkson and Salvador two of only five skaters from this country.
And, yes, GM Lou Lamoriello has a reputation for being crusty even if, like his team, that perception isn’t reality. (Few hockey execs are more reasonable to deal with or beloved by their fan base.)
But there’s a good argument to be made that, if this roster was dressed up like the Buffalo Sabres or Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings (who seem to be this year’s darlings), their bandwagon would be filling up right now.
Give this Devils team a chance, get to know some of their players like Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique and Dainius Zubrus and watch their games while they’re still in the playoffs.
They’ll likely surprise you.