NEWARK, N.J. -- Peter DeBoer knew what style he wanted his team to play from the moment he was hired as head coach of the New Jersey Devils.
“We want to pursue the puck. We want to dictate the pace of the play,” DeBoer said in July. “But at the same time the foundation of that is still good, solid defensive hockey and playing the right way, and I think that meshes perfectly with what they do here.”
Back in 1995, the Devils first won the Stanley Cup by implementing and executing the neutral zone trap to perfection. Seventeen years later, they go about their business a different way -- yet have enjoyed similar results.
“I think at times we got stereotyped too much,” defenseman Ken Daneyko, who played his entire career in New Jersey from 1983-2003, said. “Yes, we played a little more defensively, but we had really good defensemen and our team was built around Martin Brodeur and defense.”
In 1999-2000, the Devils were second in the NHL in goals and went on to win the Cup. The following season, they led the league in goals and lost the finals to the Avalanche in seven games.
Still, the perception that they didn’t play “exciting hockey” has stayed with their organization -- until now.
“Since the lockout, the emphasis has been more on offense, but it’s not like they don’t stick to their foundation of playing good in their own end. They just pressure the puck so much more. And they deserve a lot of credit for that,” said Daneyko, who now serves as one of the team’s television analysts.
During the playoffs, the Devils have averaged nearly three goals per game.
“I’m sure Peter had to sell GM Lou Lamoriello on his system,” Daneyko said, laughing. “But he knew where his team’s strength was and that was for the defensemen to get the puck up to the forwards and attack more.”
While Adam Henrique’s two series-clinching overtime goals stand out above the rest, Ryan Carter’s game-winner with 4:24 left in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers may turn out to be the team’s most important. And it came as a result of its new system.
After the puck was dumped into the offensive zone, Ilya Kovalchuk came in hard on the forecheck and pinned Michael Del Zotto against the corner boards. Stephen Gionta pursued from behind and collected the loose puck before feeding Carter out in front.
Perfect execution. Perfect result.
“It’s all about support and relentlessness,” Daneyko said. “Sometimes they’ve got three forecheckers right together because they think they’re going to come out with the puck.
“In the old days, we wouldn’t have done that. We would’ve had a safety valve in the offensive zone or out by the blue line. Now, they’ll all go to the corner because they think they’re going to come out with it, and that’s puck pressure."
It took a while for the players to become acclimated with the style that DeBoer wanted them to play. But now that they have, they’ve been a force.
“I think we had a captive audience,” DeBoer said. “You had a team last year that missed the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. And I also felt in my conversations with them that they wanted to push the pace a little bit more than they had in the past. That fit what I wanted to do, the stars aligned and they bought in.”