Lemaire brings Devils, Kovalchuk back to respectability

Remember when the New Jersey Devils were easily the worst team in the league? I do.

Well, the times they are a…er, have changed. Winners of their past four and on an 8-1-1 run, the Devs are the hottest team in the NHL. Of course, the playoffs are almost assuredly out of reach; it took 88 points to make it in the East last season and the Devils would have to win 20 of their final 26 to hit that mark. Anything is possible, but even tougher is that they’d also have to leapfrog five teams to get to the No. 8 spot in the East.

But this is a team with a huge opportunity to play spoiler and create some serious momentum for next season. Trouble is, any good vibes they do garner may be scuttled by a single departure.

Fans of the Senators won’t be happy to hear this, but a new coach really can turn a season around. And that’s exactly what Jacques Lemaire has done in New Jersey. The Hall of Famer – he won eight Cups in 12 seasons as a scoring winger with the Habs in the ’60s and ’70s – seems to be the only man who can coach the Devils, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back.

Lemaire reached official retirement age in September and had stepped down as New Jersey’s coach after leading the team to 103 points and a division title last season. But when the Devils shocked all by starting out 9-22-2, he was brought back to run their bench after John MacLean was sacked Dec. 23.

The team everyone assumed would be firmly ensconced in the East’s playoff picture – THN picked them to finish fifth in the conference – is again playing like a squad deserving of praise, thanks to Lemaire.

When asked after Thursday’s 2-1 overtime win against the Maple Leafs – Lemaire’s 600th as a coach, something only seven others have managed – one New Jersey veteran told me that the biggest difference between the Devils under MacLean and Lemaire is the system they’re playing.

Most will tell you every NHL team plays basically the same system with a few tweaks depending on personnel. But there really are two coaching philosophies and the Devils have played both this season.

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