Devils’ second Canada sweep runs winning streak to a dozen

How many superlatives and different stats would it take to do justice on what the Devils have done over their twelve-game winning streak and 15-1 stretch overall? Probably not enough, though it is hard to believe we still aren’t even a quarter of the way through the season yet. There’s still a lot of hockey to go before we print out tickets for the franchise’s second playoff appearance since 2012. That said, I don’t think even the most wild-eyed optimists would have had us at 15-3 at this point before the season, and certainly not after our 0-2 start brought out the boobirds and Same Old Devils fears.

Who would have thought Same Old Devils in this case would eventually be referring to the REAL old Devils, the throwback version of the ’90’s who can clamp down on teams defensively early and often while scoring more goals than your reputation would suggest? When you’re third in goal-scoring and second in goals against, you’re doing a lot right at the moment. Especially in comparison to last year where the Devils were nineteenth in scoring and twenty-ninth in goals allowed. Of course there is no one reason for such a drastic turnaround…perhaps the closest you can come to a singular reason is to start with praising third-year GM Tom Fitzgerald for remaking the coaching staff, defense and goaltending pretty significantly in a short period of time, and even adding to the young core up front in free agency last offseason with Ondrej Palat.

Ironically the Devils have achieved the entirety of their winning streak without Palat, who went on the shelf with hernia surgery after the first six games. Although the Devils had done a good job by then to get out of their 0-2 hole, you still didn’t think anything special was on the horizon after a disappointing home loss to the Caps dropped them back down to .500. Almost like a baseball team the Devils have engineered four straight sweeps…after beating Detroit on the road and coming back home to beat the Avs and Blue Jackets came the first Canada sweep of Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. After sweeping a homestand of Calgary, Ottawa and Arizona, the Devils went back up north to sweep the Habs, Leafs and Senators.

This team can win any way you want, from the 1-0 low-event clampdown of the Cup champs a month ago to the wild comeback in Edmonton a couple weeks ago. From OT winners against the Oilers, Flames and Leafs to blowouts of the Blue Jackets, Habs and Senators. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about a long winning streak is you need to not have letdowns to maintain the streak. Only the Calgary game at home could qualify as a quasi-letdown after the first Canada swing – and the Devils still found a way to win it thanks to Vitek Vanecek’s thirty-three saves and just enough scoring over the last forty minutes to ensure win number seven.

Perhaps this recent Canada sweep was most telling, with the winning streak now at nine you’d figure the inevitable letdown or off night was on the way at some point. This team means business however, and showed as much by thumping the Habs and Senators by matching 5-1 scores in between a tough 3-2 OT win over the Leafs, which was one of the rare occasions where the Devils couldn’t clamp down late in the third period this season – but they still managed to come out of Toronto with their eleventh straight win thanks to Yegor Sharangovich’s putback of a rebound. Even his celebration looked all business.

As the Devils shockingly are just one win away from tying the team record of thirteen straight (set during the franchise’s most dominant regular season in 2000-01), it’s a little more satisfying that they haven’t needed a shootout to extend the run at any point. In fact, they haven’t even so much as gone to a shootout at any point this year…so maybe we haven’t quite proven we can win every way yet. Obviously, you didn’t have three-on-three OT’s in 2000-01 either, but both teams also have the same chance to get a quick winner and end the game after all. Fabian Zetterlund and Nico Hischier scored their own OT winners earlier throughout the streak, and overall this offense is finally starting to show the promise many had forecast for it at ‘some’ point in the near future led by Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and captain Hischier. Maybe the future really is now.

If the offense’s growth was somewhat hoped for – if not this year then soon after – the defense’s emergence has been nothing short of eye-popping. It’s nice to know that Dougie Hamilton’s poor second half last year really was the result of injury concerns and not the start of a downturn a la PK Subban after we acquired him and that certainly helps, but he was also here and playing well early last year too when the defense was still a tire fire. You have to start by crediting the new coaching staff for a more streamlined, simpler system that’s reduced killer mistakes and overall traffic in front of the net. And as I alluded to before, you also have to credit Fitz’s talent procurement – though even he admitted he didn’t think John Marino was as good as he’s played so far this season – after trading to get him from Pittsburgh this offseason. Adding Marino to Hamilton and last season’s breakout Jonas Siegenthaler (a 2020 deadline acquisition) is nothing short of spectacular, and he did it for merely the cost of a few mid-round picks, Ty Smith – still holed up back in the minors for Pittsburgh – and some salary cap space.

Even those additions on defense wouldn’t have meant as much without also trading another couple of picks for Vitek Vanecek to help stabilize the goaltending. Despite losing presumed 1A Mackenzie Blackwood to injury (again) early in the season, Vanecek is showing that he’s capable of being a #1 for a prolonged stretch. Even young injury fill-in Akira Schmid has chipped in with three wins during this stretch, just more proof of how much better this D can insulate a young goalie this year than they did last season with a different system and different personnel.

Just as important as acquiring all these pieces, is acquiring them at cost control for long periods. Hamilton’s still got five more years left on his free agent contract after this year, Marino is still on the books for another four years at $4.4 million per, and Siegs’ five-year extension at $3.4 million per doesn’t even kick in until after this season. Even Vanecek is signed at a friendly $3.4 million deal through the end of the 2024-25 season, and after that it’s not unreasonable to suggest Schmid or last year’s young emergency fill-in goalie Nico Daws could be a 1A/1B tandem and/or challenge for a #1 spot by the time Vanecek’s contract runs out. When you add in the fact that Hughes and Hischier are both signed long-term at $8 million and $7.25 respectively for at least the next few years, this team is not only in good shape for the immediate future but in the long-term as well. Of course some of that is pending Bratt’s next negotiation either in-season or early next offseason, but you couldn’t really ask for more going forward, especially from a first-time GM.

And wither Lindy Ruff? Unlike most of the key players, his contract expires at the end of the season. Barely a month after the Fire Lindy chants rained down from the heavens at the Prudential Center, now the Jack Adams speculation is on full blast. How would he not be a prime candidate for Coach of the Year if the Devils really were able to improve 30-40 points and make the playoffs? You wonder how much job security that would buy him, but assuming there’s no collapse then I can’t see Fitzy letting him walk off a good season after he gave him a vote of confidence off two poor ones. Presumed replacement Andrew Brunette might have to go elsewhere for his next job, or wait a little longer here.

That’d be just fine by me…it’s nice to only worry about how long the winning streak will last as opposed who we need to replace and how much longer this rebuild is going to take. Our offensive, defensive and shot total numbers all suggest this winning is at least somewhat sustainable although I can’t exactly see us lapping the field in the Metro forever either. At least we’ve already made progress in that the season isn’t almost over by Thanksgiving, and perhaps we’ve gone a couple of steps beyond that in the rebuilding pyramid – thank goodness.

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