It's one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent sports memory.
On Jan. 8, the New Jersey Devils lost a Saturday matinee in Philadelphia. The 2-1 decision, which completed a home-and-home sweep by the Flyers, was the fourth defeat in a row for Jersey and its 15th in 17 games.
When they woke up the next day, the Devils were 27 points out of a playoff spot. Their 10-29-2 record was the worst in the NHL by a whopping 11 points. Their 72 goals for were 22 fewer than the next most-anemic team. Only four teams had given up more than their 130 goals.
But later that evening, New Jersey beat Tampa Bay 6-3 at home, starting an astounding run in which the Devils have gone 23-3-2. They are now only six points out of a playoff spot. They're still the lowest-scoring team in the league, but now only eight teams have surrendered fewer goals per game.
Credit defensive master Jacques Lemaire for reinstalling his system after returning as coach on Dec. 23, but we also wondered which players are most responsible for the Devils' stunning turnaround. We explore that in this week's edition of Fantasy Hockey 1-on-1, and give our advice on who to add and drop in your league.
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All stats are through Wednesday.
1. Which Devils should get their due for Jersey's rally?
Jordan: As you'd expect given their huge turnaround in goals allowed, it's the goaltending that has carried the Devils from obscurity to within reach of the playoffs. Remember the bashing that Marty Brodeur took for most of the first half of the season? With just five wins through 28 games, many pundits speculated that the NHL's all-time wins leader should retire, and some noted that he was getting closer to becoming the NHL's all-time losses leader as well. In my mind, there was no question Brodeur still had his game, and fantasy owners that held their ground and kept the future Hall of Famer were rewarded for their patience. Since Jan. 9, Brodeur's record speaks for itself: 15-2-1 with a 1.69 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. And how about his backup? Like Brodeur, Johan Hedberg was awful until January, with just five wins. Not only did "the Moose" turn things around, but he anchored the Devils when Brodeur went down with an injury in mid-February. Hedberg's record following his Jan. 8 loss: 8-1-1 with a 1.39 GAA and a .948 save percentage, including a seven-game winning streak from Feb. 8 - Feb. 22. If New Jersey makes the post-season, the masked men deserve all the credit.
Jesse: Way back in our sixth fantasy column of the year, we asked, "What's up with Ilya Kovalchuk?" Nine games into a 17-year, $102-million US contract, the two-time former 50-goal scorer had only three goals on the season. It would get worse, with Kovalchuk managing only five goals in his first 28 games. Since then, he's got 21 goals in 40 games, returning to a 40-goal season pace even if he's almost certain to fall short of that plateau for the first time since his second year in the league. The Devils will still regret that contract, but at least Kovalchuk is showing — for the first time since arriving from Atlanta a year ago — that he's capable of being an elite sniper in Jersey's more structured system.
2. Who's your add of the week?
Jesse: Marcus Johansson is making the most of his opportunity as the stand-in for Nicklas Backstrom on Washington's top line. With Backstrom out with a fractured thumb, Johansson has been thrust into the enviable position of playing centre between all-world winger Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. The 2009 first-round pick has thrived, racking up five points during a four-game points streak until it was snapped — along with the Caps' nine-game run — on Wednesday night in Washington. Backstrom should be back soon (he's listed as day-to-day) but right know Johansson is worth grabbing. And he's available in 97 per cent of Yahoo! leagues.
Jordan: With 21 points in his last 18 games, including his current eight-game point streak in March, Dallas' Jamie Benn is one of the hottest players in the league right now. With the Stars in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race and the fact that he's owned in just 34 per cent of Yahoo! leagues, if he's available, Benn is absolutely a player you should look at picking up. If you're looking for a player owned in a lower percentage of pools, Vinny Prospal is owned in just 20 per cent of leagues, mainly because he didn't play his first regular-season game until the beginning of February. Like Benn, Prospal has a point in every game in March for the Rangers (one goal, seven assists, including five power-play assists). On the injury front, Kevin Bieksa is expected to come off the injured reserve as early as Friday's match against Phoenix. The Canucks defenceman has been out since Feb. 15 with a broken foot.
3. Who's your drop of the week?
Jordan: The up-and-down season of Nikolay Zherdev continues. One might have thought that, after he was put on waivers by the Flyers, Zherdev may have picked up his game. At least the owners in the 33 per cent of Yahoo! leagues that still allow him to occupy a roster spot hoped so. But that has not been the case at all. He has a whopping zero points in nine games since Jan. 23. Over that span, he has averaged barely over one shot per game and he's averaged less than 14 minutes of ice-time per game for Philadelphia. At this crucial time of the year, the last thing you need is a player that picks up a point once a month.
Jesse: If you need to free up a roster spot, and you can handle the weirdness of dropping such a big name, let go of Chris Pronger after he underwent surgery this week to fix a fractured hand. The aging defenceman, who's also gone under the knife for knee and foot problems this season, has a respectable 25 points in 50 games, but he'll miss three to four weeks after the latest operation. If it turns out to be three weeks, he makes it back for two or three games. If it's four, he's done for the regular season. With Philly a lock for the playoffs, does it make sense for Pronger to rush back?