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Making Believers Out of a Deeply Jaded Fanbase is Tough, but the Devils are on the Right Track

Winning hockey is a tradition from a bygone era in New Jersey, but with the Devils now 6-3 and regularly burying teams the past couple of weeks, a downtrodden fanbase entertains the possibility of its return.

Colorado Avalanche v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Being a Devils fan has largely been a grim experience in the past decade, as anyone who has been a fan during that time period knows full well. The losses have come in torrents, while wins have typically dribbled in in ones and twos. The team has frequently been painful to watch and has fallen short of expectations by wide margins numerous times. So, something like what has occurred over the past two weeks for the Devils takes a little bit of getting used to in these times. What has occurred, exactly? Well, the Devils have been absolutely waxing teams on the scoreboard and the stat sheet with some regularity, and sprinkling in some tight-checking, gut-it-out wins as well, including over the powerhouse defending Cup champs from Colorado this past Friday.

The Devils have now won six of seven and, save the 50/50 game they played against the aforementioned defending champs, they’ve been winning most of them going away on the scoreboard while pretty much doubling up their opponents in shots and expected goals. The game last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a 7-1 victory on the scoreboard, was one of the most thorough beatdowns ever recorded in the analytics era. The Devils had 24 high-danger chances in the game (an insane amount on its own), and Columbus only mustered ONE going the other direction (per Natural Stat Trick). By the time Miles Wood dangled rookie David Jiricek for the Devils’ seventh goal, the game had essentially devolved into this GIF:

The Devils don’t have any notable beefs with the Blue Jackets (aside from perhaps Johnny Gaudreau’s decision to go there after being repeatedly linked to New Jersey) but they thrashed Columbus like they were John Wick and the Blue Jackets had just killed their dog. And they did this on the heels of the aforementioned white-knuckle defensive affair with the Avalanche. Bad teams typically do not win six of seven and they certainly do not frequently do it in the kind of dominant way the Devils have in the past two weeks. Old feelings are stirring in New Jersey that even the scrappy 2017-18 team couldn’t really muster.

Even despite all of that, it’s hard to shake a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop that has been ground into the fanbase so comprehensively over so many seasons. The Devils are currently in a position I have not had a lot of experience with in my close to ten years writing for this particular blog: they are dominating opponents and are a topic of major buzz around the NHL. The periods of time over which you could describe watching the Devils as fun or even fun-adjacent in the past decade have been extremely limited. The Taylor Hall MVP year and a few other limited early-season stretches are pretty much the extent of the on-ice excitement. The Devils have largely been an absolute joy to watch over the past two weeks, though.

The funny thing is that after two games, there was an overwhelming feeling of “here we go again” and a sense that the team could be fatally flawed in the same way they were last season. I had already fired the coach 14 days ago on this site. Many, many others shared those sentiments as “Fire Lindy” chants echoed through the crowd at the home opener. When you’ve been down as bad as the Devils have been the last ten seasons, it doesn’t take much to turn cautious optimism into disgust and dejection. The team was arguably doing some good things but people understandably reach their limit on “we’ve done some good things” when you’re dropping 5-2 results to bad teams on the heels of a 63-point season.

Seven games later, though, the Devils are 6-3 and just hung a historic dismantling on a division opponent immediately after holding the champs to 23 shots (despite having to kill six penalties) in a 1-0 victory that felt like statement game. It really does feel like the team has something going that is a bit different before, even knowing the Devils have started 6-3-2 and 7-3-2 in the last two seasons, respectively, and then cratered in the standings thereafter. But the towering aura of doom the Devils have accrued since the summer of 2012 is a daunting thing to overcome.

It’s tough not to be moved by the level of hockey we’re seeing from the Devils of late, but I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what to do with the results that have been delivered in the past two weeks. Objectively speaking, they look formidable with a dynamic offense and stifling defense at the moment. They are crushing their opponents in the underlying numbers nightly, and those performances are actually starting to be reflected on the scoreboard, but the Devils have been such a train wreck for so long, trust will take a while to earn back.

That the Devils are turning heads nationally and even starting to melt the frozen hearts of some of their most jaded supporters is a testament to just how good they have been, though. I’m fired up about what they are doing on the ice and the leap that everyone has been waiting for in New Jersey for years seems to potentially be upon us. For now, I’m employing a wait-and-see attitude. Trust but verify, as it were. The Devils look great at the moment, but I need to see a team that can play winning hockey for months at a time, not weeks. Give me a team not in a tailspin by Thanksgiving and I will feel much more confident in the outlook. This is a great first step, but it’s a long season and the last iteration of this team lost 50 of 70 games to end the campaign.

I’m not ready to push the ol’ chips in just yet, is what I’m saying. The Devils have me entertaining the thought for the first time in a long time, though, and that’s saying a lot, considering how bad the vibes were two weeks ago.