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Giving his team a chance to win on most nights, New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider is an early-season candidate for the Hart Trophy, the league’s most-valuable-player award.Adam Hunger/The Associated Press

Life after Lou is going unexpectedly well for the new-and-improved New Jersey Devils, who are the NHL's early-season surprise story. Projected by most to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, they have knocked off the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks twice, and last weekend they shut out and badly outclassed the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh is near and dear to both the Devils' new general manager, Ray Shero (who replaced Lou Lamoriello last May), and to their new coach, John Hynes, who coached the Penguins' minor-league affiliate for five years before getting his first NHL gig with New Jersey.

This is Shero's second NHL GM position, and it's the complete opposite of his first. In 2006, he took over a Pittsburgh team that had all these good young stars in place, guys such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Marc-André Fleury, and was tasked with getting them into the winner's circle. They did hoist the Stanley Cup – once, in 2009 – and they've been spinning their wheels ever since.

The Devils, by contrast, are an organization in deep transition with few star players other than goaltender Cory Schneider, who, along with the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, is an early-season candidate for the league's most-valuable-player award. Schneider gives his team a chance to win every night.

Ever since arriving in the NHL full-time, first with the Vancouver Canucks and now New Jersey, Schneider has always been a reliable goaltending option. But his numbers this season, on a rebuilding team with one of the greenest defence corps in the league, are nothing short of sensational – a 9-4 record, a 1.98 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage going into Tuesday night's game in Calgary against the Flames.

In many respects, the Devils are playing like the Flames did last season – perhaps catching teams a little off-guard.

"I'm not sure what other teams think of when we go to play them," said Schneider, "and frankly, I don't think it really matters to us. In our room, we're very confident in ourselves, and if teams want to underestimate us, that's fine – that works to our advantage.

"If you look at the parity in the league right now, even the so-called worst teams in the league are pretty good. It seems like you can't show up and expect to beat just anybody; no team can right now. If you look at some teams that were supposed to be great, they're struggling to start the year. We don't want to get too high on ourselves. We want to make sure it's sustainable and not just a hot start."

Schneider is now in his third season with the Devils. The memory of the goaltending controversies in Vancouver, where he shared the Canucks netminding duties with Roberto Luongo, is long in the past. Schneider is from Marblehead, Mass., and about a month ago, he and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child.

"So it's great to be local for that, and have the grandparents and aunts and uncles close by," said Schneider. "It took a little while to adjust and get used to the different teams and travel in the Eastern Conference, but Jersey's been great. It's a great organization, and it may get underestimated as a place to live. Being so close to New York, it's great travel, good fans, some nice suburbs, so the lifestyle's been fantastic. Obviously, it helps when you're winning, so this year everybody's got just a little more jump in their step and they're feeling a bit better about things."

After playing in Calgary Tuesday, the Devils move on to face the Oilers Friday in Edmonton and the Canucks Sunday in Vancouver.

In Lamoriello's next-to-last season with the Devils, he traded a first-round pick, ninth overall in the 2013 draft, to the Canucks to acquire Schneider, who was asked to replace a legend, Martin Brodeur, in goal.

Tough assignment, but Schneider has the rare consistency that only the top NHL goaltenders have – the ability to stay in the moment and shrug off the occasional nights when it isn't going their way. In five full NHL seasons, his worst goals-against average was 2.26, which happened last year and yet was still sixth-best among goalies who started 55 games or more. The Devils were seventh in the Metropolitan Division last season, but if the playoffs started today, they would qualify.

"Obviously there's been a lot of success in this organization for a long time, and then it hit a dry patch there for a bit," Schneider said. "I think all good things unfortunately come to an end. That was an era that was sort of closing, and I think we're just trying to start something new here.

"Between the new GM, the new coaching staff and some new faces, everyone's got a fresh start – the slate has been wiped clean. Right now, everything is positive. We believe in our work ethic. That goes a long way in this league."

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