Miles Wood was in his car and not in a good mood.
New Jersey Devils fans were in the same boat for different reasons.
A team with heightened expectations after a mostly miserable decade had just dropped its second straight game to open a season that was supposed to be different.
And the locals were already extremely restless.
Chants of “Fire Lindy” directed at veteran head coach Lindy Ruff rained down from the stands inside Prudential Center that night.
“We’ve definitely been in the soup for a couple of years,” Wood said recently of New Jersey’s difficult start. “But we were disappointed the way [the crowd] treated Lindy.”
“We felt like that was on us,” continued the winger. “When we’re driving home after the game and we know that our fans are chanting to fire coach that doesn’t sit well.”
Less than a month later, fans had changed their tune – and for good reason.
With the Devils steaming through the NHL on the way a ninth straight victory last week, the chorus of “Fire Lindy” that had echoed around the building was flipped on its axis to “Sorry Lindy” as supporters acknowledged their mistake.
The team still hasn’t looked back, picking up four more wins to push its streak to 13 games ahead of Wednesday’s visit from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Being around this long, you don’t really listen to the outside noise,” Ruff said. “Our fans are passionate. They want to win. They’re impatient.
“They’re tired of seeing the team lose.”
Ruff appreciated his players taking the chants that were calling for their coach’s head personally, but added New Jersey’s surge has been about a talented, lightning-quick roster coming together and holding each other accountable.
“Pretty tight-knit group,” said the 62-year-old. “Everybody wants to be in on the action on the wins.
“And everybody wants to be held responsible when we don’t play that well.”
Wood said the Devils, who have made the playoffs once since 2012-23 and accumulated elite talent through the draft, including first overall picks Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, were confident results would eventually materialize.
It just wasn’t happening quick enough for some.
“This stuff takes time,” Wood said. “You see the kind of player Jack is today. He wasn’t like that three years ago. People expect these guys to get shot out of the gate it’s not always like that.
“Nico’s our captain and he’s unbelievable. Nobody really noticed that until we started winning.”
While the Devils have benefited from the top of the draft, they’ve also built a four-line team with a strong, skilled defence corps to go along with quality goaltending.
“Been through tough times,” Hischier said. “But it’s paying off.”
New Jersey blueliners Dougie Hamilton and Jon Marino lead the way with an average of just under 22 minutes per game, which ranked 58th and 59th across the entire NHL heading into Wednesday.
Ruff sees similarities between these Devils and his well-balanced 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres, who won 10 straight to open that season and made the Eastern Conference final.
“All four lines are able to play on both sides of the puck and any situation,” he said. “You can get more out of your shifts and more out of the group.”
Hughes backed Ruff in the off-season and offered a little smirk when asked about how “Fire Lindy” morphed to something completely different in short order.
“Jumped the gun a bit,” he said. “But I think people are pretty happy with how he’s doing right now.”
World Cup interest
The NHL recently pushed its proposed World Cup from February, 2024 to least the following year.
Watching the FIFA World Cup will have to do for now.
The Leafs have set up a picks pool that saw players divvy up the 32 countries across their locker room in a draft to add to the drama – especially with Canada in the men’s tournament for the first time since 1986.
“Lots of guys come out of the woodwork,” Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly deadpanned of his teammates recently. “Fake fans and everything, but you let it slide.”
Swiss-born winger Denis Malgin will be watching closely as his nation attempts to navigate a group that includes Brazil.
“World Cup is always a big thing,” he said. “We’re gonna talk about it every day.”
Barzal on Bedard
New York Islanders centre Mathew Barzal remembers snickering the first time Connor Bedard stepped on the ice for an informal summer skate with NHLers in the Vancouver area.
Bedard might have been 12 or 13 years old, sporting a full cage and skates that looked a too big.
“We’re like, ‘Who’s this little kid?’ ” Barzal recalled.
They soon found out.
“Two years later he’s shooting the puck harder than all of us,” he continued. “He’s dangling NHL defencemen. He’s an incredible talent.”
The slam-dunk top pick at the 2023 NHL draft, Bedard has eviscerated the competition in the Western Hockey League this season, putting up 19 goals and 48 points in just 22 games for the Regina Pats.
Barzal said getting on the ice with the 17-year-old phenom has helped his own game.
“The new age of player where he’s just got all the tools,” said the 25-year-old. “Fun learning new tricks and skills.”
Brazal added the only player he’s seen with similar shot and release is Leafs sniper Auston Matthews, who scored 60 last season on the way to winning Hart Trophy honours as league MVP.
“NHL goalies, he’s been beating them since he was 15,” Barzal said of Bedard. “Excited to see how he does this league.