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Minutes after winning his debut as coach of the Devils, 3-1 over the Islanders on Jan. 29, Kevin Constantine was asked what he thought of New Jersey's A Line, which had contributed two goals. "Sorry", Constantine said with a smile, "but what's the A Line?"
Forgive the new guy if he didn't know that the Devils' top unit, comprising Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias and Peter Sykora, is nicknamed the A Line. Not only was Constantine learning on the job, but also the team he inherited from the fired Larry Robinson bore little resemblance to the club that represented the Eastern Conference in the last two Stanley Cups. Despite a talented roster, New Jersey this season had stumbled to 21-20-7-3 and was in ninth place in the conference at the time of Robinson's dismissal.
"Maybe we all had our own agendas," says defenseman Ken Daneyko. "We got pulled in different directions and weren't playing as a unit. Larry did a terrific job for a couple of years, but this season we weren't responding."
That the Devils played like gangbusters in Constantine's first two games (they also beat the Blackhawks 3-1) reflected their sheepishness at having cost the easygoing Robinson his job. By hiring the 43-year-old Constantine, a disciplinarian who had been out of the NHL since being fired in December 1999 as Penguins coach, G.M. Lou Lamoriello showed he believes New Jersey needs only a wakeup call.
As of Sunday, Constantine hadn't made major changes. He'd moved center Scott Gomez to left wing on the second line with Bobby Holik and Sergei Brylin, and he'd stressed defense—finishing checks, clearing the front of the net and, his point of emphasis, blocking shots. In Constantine's first two games the Devils blocked 44, compared with an average of 10.5 per game before his arrival.
Perhaps Constantine's most significant move was assuring the A Line players, who through Sunday had combined for 51 of New Jersey's 132 goals, that they'll play together for the rest of the season. To shake up the Devils, Robinson several times this year had separated the trio for short periods. "Larry was trying to help the team by breaking us up, but it's good to know well be together", Elias says.
Although Lamoriello says New Jersey has the talent to contend for the Cup, the team is thin up front. With Gomez and Holik playing together, the scoring will likely come from only two lines, and goaltender Martin Brodeur (.902 save percentage) was laboring under the NHL's heaviest workload: Through Sunday he'd played 2,890 of a possible 3,203 minutes, a higher percentage than any other netminder in the league had played.
What's more, the Devils, who had moved one point in front of the Canadiens for the conference's last playoff berth, are uneasy in that low-rent district. "We're desperate," Arnott says. "When you're playing for that eighth spot, you have to play with desperation every night. That's hard for us because we've been at the top for a while."
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