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Devils' Due
Michael Farber
February 06, 2006
With its hard-nosed G.M. as the new bench boss and its star scorer healthy, New Jersey is hot again after a rocky start
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February 06, 2006

Devils' Due

With its hard-nosed G.M. as the new bench boss and its star scorer healthy, New Jersey is hot again after a rocky start

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There is irrefutable photographic evidence of New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello smiling in public, which, in its way, is as stunning as a National Geographic gatefold of the Loch Ness Monster playing gin rummy with Sasquatch. The sighting occurred after a Jan. 21 shootout win over the New York Islanders. "Somebody said I was hurting my image," says Lamoriello, who dresses with the sobriety of an undertaker. "But I was so happy for [ Zach Parise, who scored the winning goal], a young fellow who tries so hard, who's had so much pressure on him. The unfortunate thing is, you forget where you are."

In Lamoriello's 19 years as the Devils' G.M., he has built three Stanley Cup--winning teams as well as a no-nonsense reputation. So after New Jersey got off to a dismal start (finishing December with a 16-18-5 record and in 10th place in the East) and coach Larry Robinson's health forced him to resign on Dec. 19, Lamoriello took it upon himself to step in as bench boss. Though he says he's still seeking a replacement, the search seems to be proceeding as rapidly as O.J.'s hunt for the real killers. Lamoriello is loath to interfere with a good thing, and despite two scoreless games in two nights in Florida last week, the Devils earned standings points in 11 of their past 13 games, winning 10 of them.

In his current incarnation Lamoriello, a respected coach at Providence College from 1968 to '83, is coach as CEO--offering individual counsel to his players while overseeing his lieutenants. Even when the Devils lost five of their first seven with Lamoriello as coach, players say he was relentlessly positive. "He keeps guys accountable," says goalie Martin Brodeur, who last week signed a six-year, $31.2 million contract. "I thought it would be [awkward] at first, but Lou's attention to detail is amazing. He doesn't miss much."

New Jersey did, however, miss Patrik Elias, who, after returning on Jan. 3 from a bout of hepatitis A, led the Devils to a nine-game winning streak and had 16 points in his first 12 games. New Jersey, now seventh in the conference, has a dangerous No. 1 line in winger Brian Gionta, center Scott Gomez and Elias--"the most underrated guy in the league," says Gomez. Meanwhile Brodeur, still adjusting to the mandated smaller catching glove, has been helped by old-school New Jersey defense, which was absent during the first 10 weeks of the season; through Sunday he had four shutouts in his last 13 games and had lowered his goals-against average to 2.58.

"Obviously Mr. Lamoriello--Lou--is an intimidating man in the hockey world," says Gomez. "When a presence like that is on the bench, it gets your attention."

OFFENSIVE SHIFT

Scoring Rise in The East

The Western Conference has holstered its reputation for run-and-gun hockey. Through Sunday nine of the NHL's 10 leading scorers were from the East. The other, San Jose's Joe Thornton, had scored 33 of his 67 points in Boston before being traded. The balance may have been tilted by new coach Bryan Murray's loosening the reins in Ottawa, the offensive talent in Atlanta and the presence of rookie Alexander Ovechkin in Washington, but Thornton sees another change. "Some teams in the West play a 1-4," he says of the passive forechecking scheme, first cousin of the offense-stifling neutral-zone trap. "You don't see it as much in the East."

? For weekly NHL power rankings, go to SI.com/NHL.

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