Of the four teams that reached the conference finals last spring, only the New Jersey Devils have won more games than they've lost this season. And even they were 2-3-2 before they began a 9-0-2 streak.
Their turnaround comes from sheer will and knowing how treacherous this path can be. They won the Stanley Cup in 1995 but missed the playoffs in 1996, victims of physical and emotional hangovers. That experience has helped them navigate the obstacle course that's tripping up the Ottawa Senators, Mighty Ducks and Minnesota Wild.
"In '96 we went through that roller coaster, and the reason it's not happening now is our coaching staff and the veterans in our locker room," said General Manager Lou Lamoriello, whose team will play the Kings tonight at Staples Center and the Ducks Wednesday in Anaheim in a rematch of the Cup finals.
"I don't believe in sophomore jinxes or things like that. I believe in preparing. If you cheat in your preparation, that's why things go wrong. If you're too tired to play, we'll get somebody else to play. Maybe sometimes I'm criticized for it but I don't think there's anything wrong with refusing to accept less than each player's best."
The Devils' seven-game victory over the Ducks earned them a third title in nine seasons. Only the Detroit Red Wings, with three in seven seasons, have won as many since the end of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty. The Devils have won under three coaches -- Jacques Lemaire in 1995, Larry Robinson in 2000 and Pat Burns last season -- and with a core of five players: Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Sergei Brylin, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer. Daneyko retired last summer and was replaced by David Hale and Paul Martin, but the club's philosophy hasn't changed.
The Devils draft and develop well, teaching a sound, defense-based game at every level. When they can't fill a need from within, Lamoriello doesn't hesitate to trade assets to fill a hole. Bobby Holik was hardly missed after he went to the New York Rangers as a free agent because Lamoriello had acquired Joe Nieuwendyk and Pascal Rheaume. Nieuwendyk didn't return this season, but Lamoriello signed Erik Rasmussen and Igor Larionov for depth. Also, winger Christian Berglund, who spent most of the last two seasons in the American Hockey League, is playing about 11 minutes a game.
"I don't think you should ever make a change for the sake of change. You have to react at the right time," Lamoriello said. "If someone's not doing his job, you don't have to threaten. You just do it. I don't believe in threats and warnings. You have a responsibility to give what you can for the team....
"You have to have a tone of what you expect out of each other. You have to have people ready and let them know you'll look to our organization first. They know when they perform they'll be given the first opportunity."
The Devils' style is successful but not always dynamic or crowd pleasing. The only NHL team that announces a turnstile count instead of tickets distributed, the Devils are averaging 15,687 or 82.4% of capacity at Continental Airlines Arena.
"Disappointed, yes. Discouraged, no," Lamoriello said. "We've seen this in the past.... In this market, it's tough sometimes, but it's something we've worked very hard at. The facility isn't what it should be, as far as ambience, but those aren't excuses. We try to give fans a good experience."
Stevens, the Devils' captain, will play his 1,615th game tonight and tie Larry Murphy for the most games played by a defenseman. He'll pass Murphy and rank fourth overall Wednesday by playing against the Ducks, whose general manager, Bryan Murray, was Stevens' first NHL coach in Washington in 1982.
"He came in as a young, emotional player, always very strong and very aggressive but very emotional, and sometimes that would get the best of him," said Murray, who recalled butting heads with Stevens over temper-driven penalties. "But that was what made him great, even from the beginning. Obviously, he's gone on to be one of the greatest defensemen that has played the game.
"He's always played physical, even as a 40-year-old. He was a skilled defenseman to some extent early on, and he has had to adjust to become an outstanding defensive defenseman, the match man for the best player of the other team."
Stevens peaked at 283 penalty minutes in 1986-87. He also made an impact offensively, with 21 goals in 1984-85 and 78 points in 1993-94. He has 904 points, 10th among defensemen and 11 behind Bobby Orr.
"I'm flabbergasted. It's an honor to be mentioned with his name," Stevens said.
He'll also be remembered for his crunching hit on Paul Kariya in Game 6 of the finals last spring. Kariya was knocked out but returned to score in a 5-2 Duck victory.
"It will be exciting to come back there," Stevens said. "I know we've played a lot of close games at the Pond and really couldn't buy a win there and hopefully we can pull off a win and bring back some of that intensity we had in that series."
Can't Forgive or Forget
Irate after reading that Kariya and Teemu Selanne had offered their Colorado teammates $3,000 to beat the Mighty Ducks last Tuesday -- the Avalanche won, 2-1, in overtime -- a group of Duck fans has responded in kind.
As of Monday, the group had collected $480 to be donated to the favorite charity of the Duck who scores the winning goal against the Avalanche on Dec. 19, Colorado's first game at Anaheim this season.
If the teams tie or the Ducks lose, the money will roll over to Colorado's visit Jan. 30. If the Ducks don't defeat the Avalanche this season, the money will go to the Mighty Ducks Care charity.
"It's a nice way to show that we fans feel very strongly about this," said Douglas Stolhand, who set up mail and electronic donation options through the fan message board on the Ducks' Web site and a fan-run site, www.allducks.com.
"We felt so betrayed by what Kariya did, how he said at the [post-Cup] rally that he'd be back this year to win it all. This is our first chance to let him know how we feel, that after all those years of saying, 'I want to play my whole career with the Ducks, like Steve Yzerman has with Detroit,' the first chance he gets, he leaves."
Congratulations to Jiggs McDonald, who called his 3,000th game Friday. McDonald, who does radio play-by-play for the Florida Panthers, was the Kings' first radio voice.
"Since Oct. 14, 1967 at Long Beach Arena on KNX radio as the Kings beat the Flyers, to Nov. 21, 2003, here in another warm locale, something like 62 buildings, 19 coaches and nine general managers," he said in an e-mail recapping his career.
Mike Smith, fired as general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 24, filed a grievance with the NHL over the club's refusal to pay him for the two years left on his contract. Commissioner Gary Bettman has asked the Blackhawks to submit information to him this week. They reportedly claim Smith breached his contract by making at least one unauthorized trade.
The Pittsburgh Penguins' weak attendance and lower-than-expected revenue may lead them to return goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to his junior team or lend him to Team Canada for the world junior championships so he won't reach bonus clauses in his contract. Fleury is guaranteed a salary of $1.24 million and can earn $3 million in bonuses if he appears in 25 or more games.
The Penguins defined an appearance as 20 minutes or more, and he was pulled after playing 19:32 of a game Nov. 19. He also had an 11-minute mop-up outing in an 8-0 loss to Tampa Bay. Pulling him might save money but will hurt the Penguins competitively and could alienate a player who figures to be their cornerstone for the next decade.
Warm memories of Saturday's Heritage Classic outdoor game: Guy Lafleur and Mark Messier shoveling the ice between periods of the alumni game, just as when they were kids. Montreal's Jose Theodore playing the regular game in a ski cap topped by a pompom. Ice so brittle the puck bounced in some spots and stopped in others, but players adapted in keeping with the spirit of the day.
Cold memory: Bettman interrupting the good feelings Friday by criticizing the players' union for "engaging in as much public relations rhetoric as they can" and implying they're unwilling to negotiate. How about both sides locking themselves in a room, talking privately and settling this mess?
The Calgary Flames and Red Wings are looking into staging outdoor games, but they won't match the novelty of this one. The Oilers hoped to make about $2 million, but seeing Wayne Gretzky in uniform again was priceless.