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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Daily Debate: Devils surging, Pens surviving

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun preview Thursday night's games:

Burnside: Greetings, my friend. I am packing my bags for a trip to Boston in anticipation of Saturday’s marquee matchup between the Bruins and the New York Rangers. But the Bruins and Rangers both have interesting tests before that game.

First, let’s talk about the B's visit to Newark tonight, where they will try to halt a mini-skid that has seen them lose two of three. But they will face a Devils team that has won five of six and has designs on overtaking Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division and perhaps securing home ice in the first round of the playoffs. It wasn’t that long ago that Boston crushed the Devils 6-1 and New Jersey looked like a team that would be scrambling around at the bottom of the playoff bracket. But they continue to play solid defense -- they have allowed just 12 goals in their past six games and haven’t allowed more than two goals in their five wins over that period -- and they will get surprising rookie Adam Henrique back for Thursday’s game. He is one point behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who looked like he was going to run away with the Calder Trophy race for rookie of the year before being injured. Henrique is making a strong case for himself with 13 goals, tied for first among all first-year players, and three game winners. In short, the Devils are not a team to be trifled with, my friend.

LeBrun: And they’re fun to watch. For years, the criticism of the Devils -- sometimes warranted, sometimes not -- was that they were boring to watch. That is certainly not the case anymore. They play a quick transition game under head coach Pete DeBoer and an entertaining brand of hockey.

"There’s no question [the players] have responded tremendously under Pete as far as being aggressive, jumping on the puck, and it’s got contagious," veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told me this morning. "Our top players have really bought into it."

As expected, star captain Zach Parise has found his groove after missing most of last season with a knee injury. The veteran Patrik Elias seems never to age, he’s been so impressive. But what’s really interesting is the play of Ilya Kovalchuk, who for my money is playing his best hockey since his heyday in Atlanta. I will be the first to admit I believed he made a mistake signing in New Jersey two summers ago -- I didn’t like the fit and even earlier this season it appeared he still looked out of sync with his teammates. But he’s flying right now and making many of us look foolish for doubting him.

"The key with any team is when your top players are your top players," said Lamoriello. "The majority of the nights with us, that’s been the case. And that’s what you have to have. That’s the difference with us right now is that our top players are playing to the top of our game."

With the Bruins in town tonight, Lamoriello doesn’t buy into the hype like most people do.

"Certainly whenever you’re playing a team that’s in a position that Boston is in, and a team that Boston has, it’s certainly a good barometer," Lamoriello said. "But we’re not even looking at that. We’re looking at worrying about us and playing well. We’re focused on playing the way we need to play, and that’s getting better and better."

Burnside: Funny that when we talk about potential Jack Adams candidates for coach of the year, I don’t once recall Pete DeBoer’s name coming up, but it should and will if the Devils keep marching up the Eastern Conference ladder. I remember talking to a former GM in the offseason when the Devils were still looking to fill Jacques Lemaire’s shoes and DeBoer’s name came up. I wondered if it was a fit given that DeBoer had never quite gotten over the hump in Florida, and this GM insisted that guys around the NHL would give DeBoer a pass given that he never really had a top-notch lineup to work with.

Now, the Devils look to be a middling team this season given a defense that lacks a true anchor and questions about Zach Parise coming back from injury (and his contract) and the whole Kovalchuk thing. But we’ve talked to DeBoer a couple of times this season and he remains perpetually upbeat, and that has to have been a real key in getting maximum production from up and down the lineup, especially from his younger players.

The Bruins will be a big test, though, and they have had a habit of squashing conference foes who think they’re ready to hunt with the big dogs. The Rangers, meanwhile, will entertain a Pittsburgh team that has crept back into the playoff picture but trails the Devils and is just three points ahead of ninth-place Toronto, in spite of winning three in a row.

LeBrun: The Penguins have won three straight since GM Ray Shero asserted after a six-game losing streak that his team would indeed make the playoffs. It’s unlike Shero to grab the spotlight like that, but his vote of confidence seems to have inspired his troops. They play three games in four days starting tonight, also hosting Montreal on Friday night and Washington on Sunday afternoon. Star defenseman Kris Letang looks to be healthy enough to make a return tonight, which is huge for them.

I think the Penguins are back to playing with that kind of resilience that made them so impressive while playing through all those key injuries over the past year and a half. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like when Sidney Crosby was shelved the second time last month, after only an eight-game return, it mentally deflated that dressing room. It’s as if for 10 months those players were feeding off the notion that they were going to prove to the world they could survive without the best player in the game. But when Crosby left the lineup again so quickly, it’s like they weren’t ready, mentally, for that challenge again, and their play sagged. But they’re back now to playing the kind of survivor hockey that has them hanging in there.

Heck of a test tonight, though. The Rangers have all the answers. People keep waiting for them to fall back a little, but I don’t see that coming. I think the Blueshirts are legitimate contenders. I know they’re looking for a power-play defenseman before the Feb. 27 trade deadline and/or a top-six forward who can put the puck in the net. If they can pick up either one of those assets, or both, watch out.

Burnside: It’s going to be fascinating to see how both the Rangers and Bruins approach the trade deadline wanting to keep pace with the other in terms of loading up for the postseason but also being mindful of the chemistry that clearly exists in each dressing room.

But before we close, let’s look for a moment at what might be dubbed the Desperation
Bowl with the slipping, sliding Minnesota Wild in Toronto to face a Leafs team that has slid right out of the playoff bracket. In fact, both teams currently occupy ninth place in their respective conferences, although the Wild are just a point behind eighth-place Colorado and have two games in hand on the Avs, who came from behind to beat Florida on Wednesday night.

The Leafs, meanwhile, have lost three in a row and are three points in arrears of the final playoff berth. Looks like head coach Ron Wilson will split up slumping stars Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, but will it be enough? You had a chance to chat with the Wild on Wednesday. I am assuming there is a high level of frustration there given that at one point they were the top team in the Western Conference.

LeBrun: Yes, I wrote a Wild story Wednesday after going to their practice, and I saw a team that looked very frustrated. They held a team meeting before practice. Head coach Mike Yeo said it was important to talk as a group. Right now, he says, one bad thing happens in a game and everything goes off the rails. He’s trying to rebuild their confidence. They’ve won only two of their past 16 games to fall from first overall in the NHL in mid-December to one point out of a playoff spot in the West. It’s a sensational free fall, mostly due to a litany of injuries. GM Chuck Fletcher says he’s working the phones diligently trying to find a top-six forward given that he’s got three of those injured.

"You can't wave a magic wand and have a deal pop up," Fletcher said after practice Wednesday. "The scary thing, too, is you can make big mistakes when you feel pressure to do something. ... We'll keep working the phones; other teams are aware of what we're trying to accomplish."

And yes, the Leafs are also feeling some anxiety heading into tonight’s game, like Minnesota, sitting ninth in their own conference after spending most of the season in a playoff spot. The Kessel-Lupul split is a sign that the Leafs aren’t going to sit back and let things unravel without trying to nip it in the bud. And like the Wild, the Leafs are also working the phones looking for a top-six forward. All of which makes tonight’s game at Air Canada Centre feel like a playoff game for both teams.