Tomorrow night can be a sad night at the Rock. The Devils, who outplayed the Penguins all year and clinched second in the conference, can be eliminated in the first round of the players for the third consecutive season. Down 3-1, and with the way the Devils have played, this looks almost certain. The Devils face a steep uphill climb to just get a victory tomorrow night.
Despite the odds, the Devils can still stage a comeback. But, in order to be competitive, the team needs leadership, and those leaders need to step up quickly. Who can step up to provide the leadership necessary to lead the team? Here are a few of my options:
1. Coach Jacques Lemaire
Lemaire hasn’t been doing so well in this series. It looks like Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette has thoroughly outcoached him. The Flyers’ forecheck has been terrific, they’ve continually attacked the Devils’ defense, and the team has never stopped moving since game one. Lemaire has seem subdued, almost emotionally detached to the situation going on around him. But I believe Lemaire can begin a Devils’ turnaround by making a few simple adjustments.
First, Lemaire needs to actually coach. While watching the games, Lemaire seems to take a hands-off approach, especially when the Devils need him most. Lemaire needs to get in the face of his players. He needs to be there, getting in players ears. He needs to make the adjustments in between periods to keep this team sharp. I know Lemaire has been hands-off, but down 3-1, it’s time to break the mold. I’d like to see Lemaire get a little more proactive on the bench and institute in-period changes. It’s the only way to keep up with a Flyers team that has outworked the Devils in four of the series five games.
Lemaire also has the background to help the team rescue the series. In 2003, with the Minnesota Wild, Lemaire pulled his team back from two 3-1 series deficits. They first came back against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference quarterfinals, effectively ending Patrick Roy’s career. They repeated the feat in the next round, defeating the Vancouver Canucks. His experience in this situation can and should be used to help the team respond.
Lemaire knows the time for speeches and talking is over.
"It’s been four speeches that we put on and there will be a fifth one," Lemaire said to Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. "There’s a time for speeches. You can’t look for speeches. You’ve just got to get the work done."
2. Colin White
In 2000, the Devils had great leadership throughout the locker room. Scott Stevens was the unquestioned leader of the team, but they also had great leadership from Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer. White was also on that squad. With the defense playing subpar during this series, the Devils need someone to step up and lead the blue line. While White may not be the best blueliner, he’s the senior leader of that group. White needs to step up and get the defense playing well. The defense hasn’t played well in their own zone, and White needs to be the one to hold people accountable. He should be the vocal leader of the group, reminding the defenseman to move the puck and make the smart play. He should be riding defenseman when they take dumb penalties or take a shift off. I haven’t seen anyone step up this season to be the leader of the defense. In this situation, the team needs someone to do that, and White’s been around long enough to know what the Devils expect from their defenseman. He should step up, carry the torch and lead the defense.
3. Patrik Elias or Zach Parise
There’s a certain reason that two guys on the team become assistant captains. While not the true captain, these players are still looked toward to lead both on and off the ice. With Jamie Langenbrunner failing to inspire the troops, it’s time for these two to step up. And Elias has already picked up the slack, speaking about the positive mindset he believes the team has going into game five.
"We have a team that we feel that we can beat them, so it’s the same thing (as 2000)," Elias said to Gulitti. "We’ve got to make sure that we believe in it. We’ve go to go out and just worry about – as it is, you can’t worry about the end result. You’ve got to go and do your job every shift and believe that we’ll get it done."
Elias is saying the right thing now, but can he step out on the ice and lead? The same question goes for Parise. These two guys need to step up their game. They need to be, like I suggest for White, getting in the faces of the forwards and making sure everyone is playing responsible, smart hockey. If they can continue to bring these positive vibes and push everyone to play harder, smarter hockey, then Elias and Parise will be doing their job and leading this team.
There’s something to be said for the quality of good leadership. If the Devils can get leadership from these players, it will be a big step in the right direction. Many of the players realize this isn’t the year 2000. But, with both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter slated to miss the rest of the series, the Devils will finally catch a break in the series. By getting some positive leadership, I’d expect the Devils to come out tomorrow night and play an inspired game. You never know what one great performance can bring. But, in order to realize their potential, some unsung leaders will have to rise in the Devils’ locker room.