The NHL is about to resume play after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and I thought back to another Olympic year where the Devils had a rough start, in 2005-06. That season had some common threads to this current Devils team, and that season featured an amazing stretch run of games after the 2006 Olympic Games held in Turino, Italy.
The Devils currently have a record of 24-22-13 at the Olympic break, they resume play on Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Devils team back in 2005-06 had a record of 30-22-6 at the break, almost the exact same number of games played as well as an identical number of losses compared to the current team. The Devils team in 2005-06 was in 7th place in the Eastern Conference when the Olympics began.
The Olympic break in 2006 lasted from February 12, 2006 through the end of the month, and the Devils resumed play on March 1, 2006 with a victory against the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1 in a shootout.
A Changing League
The NHL in 2005-06 was very different than the situation we are in today, but also very similar in that the two seasons were both following periods of labor unrest which resulted in cancelled games. In 2005-06 the NHL was returning from missing an entire season of games the previous year.
This season is following a condensed season in 2013 which was the result of a lockout as well which cancelled almost half the season. The league both times faced Olympic breaks in the season directly following the labor disruptions.
The NHL in 2005-06 featured new rules to open up the game and increase scoring. The new rules also limited the goaltenders ability to play the puck beyond a certain area now known as “the trapezoid”.
The Devils in 2005-06 were a team with some new faces on the roster which parallels this current version of the team. Their leader and captain, Scott Stevens, retired and another impact player, Scott Niedermayer, left the team via free agency. Patrik Elias missed the first 39 games that season due to Hepatitis A which he contracted while playing in Russia during the lockout in 2004-05.
The Devils in 2005-06 got off to a rough start, in similar fashion to the current team this season. The team was 14-13-5 on December 19th and Head Coach Larry Robinson resigned from the team and was replaced by team President Lou Lamoriello.
A Deep Team
The Devils were a deep team that season, with Brian Gionta scoring 48 goals, Scott Gomez led the team with 51 assists, and Martin Brodeur had 43 wins in the goal crease to go along with a 2.57 Goals Against Average.
That team had excellent role players such as Brian Rafalski, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Sergei Brylin, and a young Zach Parise. They had strong veteran players such as Jamie Langenbrunner. The defense was rebuilt around Colin White, who became the enforcer type player, and Paul Martin who played the role of offensive-minded defenseman.
After the Olympics
The 2005-06 New Jersey Devils returned from the Olympic break and reeled off victories, they went 16-5-3 after the Olympic break to go from 7th in the Eastern Conference to first place in their division.
The team finished with a record of 46-27-9 and they won 12 of their last 13 games, which was an incredible stretch, including an unbelievable 11 game winning streak to close out the regular season.
I remember calling my college buddy, who was also a big Devils fan, every day they had a game in that streak and I would tell him I thought they would win again that night. We both could not believe how long that streak lasted.
That team had everything working together for them at the right time, it was the perfect example of a Devils team that would start slow and finish with some incredible victories. It was an awesome experience for myself and the other fans to watch unfold.
I also remember at the time being very uncertain of how that team would return from the Olympic break, they were playing mediocre hockey prior to the Games in Torino, so I thought the long layoff might hurt the team. I was apparently wrong, and the team chemistry produced some outstanding results in the spring of 2006.
The Devils entered the playoffs in 2005-06 with a first round matchup with their arch-rivals, the New York Rangers, and even though New Jersey was riding an 11 game win streak, many experts were picking them to lose the series. The Devils had never defeated the Rangers in a playoff series up to that point, and many thought the Devils would come unraveled against their rivals.
However, the Devils dominated every facet of that series and defeated the Rangers for the first time in the playoffs, with a 4 games to none sweep which was completed on April 29, 2006. I was so thrilled that the Devils went out and executed so well against the Rangers in that series. Their win streak now stood at 15 games.
Their playoff run ended that year in the next round when New Jersey lost to the Carolina Hurricanes 4 games to 1 in the series, and Carolina went on to eventually win the Stanley Cup that season.
Then and Now
The 2005-06 has several comparable elements to the current Devils team that is about to resume the stretch run of this 2013-14 hockey season. The two teams also are very different, the 2005-06 team was deeper and had more players capable of scoring in their group of forwards.
That team had a coaching change mid-season, while this current team has not gone through that situation, though some would argue that they should have made a coaching change this season.
The Devils are holding a contest via Twitter and social media asking fans what they have missed the most about the Devils and the Prudential Center during the long Olympic break. I responded that I missed the sounds of the game and the roar of the crowd in the Prudential Center after the Devils score a goal. I cannot wait to hear those sounds again, and for those who have been to a game in the Prudential Center, you all know that feeling after a goal. It is one of the best experiences in sports, giving “high fives” to the people in your section that you may have just met an hour before, but you are united by one common thread, a love of the same hockey team. It is one of the elements I love the most about hockey and about sports in general.
I do not know what the Devils will do in their final stretch of games this season. I am not sure if this team is even capable of an 11 game winning streak. I do know that I have always believed that this current team is better than others think it is, and that they have the talent and the goaltending needed to make a playoff run. I look forward to watching these games and rooting for the Devils to finish this season strong to again prove their critics are wrong. I look forward to game nights and the roar of the Devils Army in the stands!