Jacques Lemaire begins his third stint as coach of the Devils realizing that he must make an impact that goes beyond shuffling lines or changing strategy. Lemaire needs to be a psychiatrist to an underachieving team that has the worst record in the NHL at 9-24-2.
"Right now their minds are somewhere else," said Lemaire, who replaced John MacLean last week. "Defeat, mistakes, not playing well. You have to build it up so we get stronger mentally and play the game for 60 minutes being positive. Confidence you have at the start, but you lose it. The coach can try to get them confidence and play them in certain situations where you feel they can have success, but they have to work at it. The players have to do it."
Lemaire made it clear quickly that he expects the Devils to work. Prior to his first game Sunday, a loss to the Maple Leafs, Lemaire put his team through a morning skate that was much more strenuous than usual.
"It's nice to be able to work them a little bit," Lemaire said. "I think this is what we need—practices. We need this so they really understand what we're trying to achieve and what we want, how the game should be played. Because probably with the lack of confidence we deviate from how we should play. You lose confidence and then you don't work as hard. You don't back check as hard. You don't stop in your zone. You don't do the little things you should do and will do when things are going well."
The extra work didn't pay an immediate dividend as Sunday's defeat ran the Devils' losing streak to five games. They have scored only one goal in each of those five games. Furthermore, they have lost 10 of their last 11 games, scoring a total of 13 goals in the 10 defeats.
Part of the reason the Lightning have spent a great portion of the season atop the Southeast Conference standings has been the power play. The Lightning entered Tuesday's action having converted 23.9% of their power play opportunities, second behind the Blackhawks (25.0%).
However, the Lightning's man advantage opportunities have dwindled recently. They had four or more power play opportunities 18 times in their first 25 games, but just four in their last 10 games.
"Teams look at our power play, and they want to take that away from us because that is one of our weapons," coach Guy Boucher said. "Teams are doing the right thing; that's a good plan against us."
Often, it's a sign of not working hard when a team's power play chances dry up. However, Boucher says effort is not the Lightning's problem.
"We are still skating hard, getting in the zone and forcing ourselves in there," he said. "Teams are not hooking us or anything, and they will sometimes rather let us go with a bit of space rather than try to grab us."
In many regards, the Pacific has been the most competitive of the NHL's six divisions. All five teams had more wins than losses and at least 39 points going into Tuesday. The only other division that could make that claim was the Central.
The Stars stand atop the Pacific Division and coach Marc Crawford believes the cohesion of his team has a lot to do with being in first place.
"It's fun to win," Crawford said. "Our guys come to the rink, we're smiling and nobody wants to let the rest of the guys down."
That was evident last Thursday before the Stars went into their Christmas break as Jamie Benn was not afraid to mix things up with Flames captain Jarome Iginla. Despite being outweighed, Benn landed a shot that caused a gash under Iginla's eye that required four stitches. Benn, who has been in six fights in his two seasons in the league, more than held his own against a veteran with 57 fights on his resume.
"He announces he's not only a good player, but he's a tough and honest competitor," Crawford said.
The Kings are right on the Stars' heels and posted back-to-back victories inside the division coming out of their break as they beat the Ducks on Sunday and the Sharks on Monday. The Kings have another Pacific battle Wednesday night when they visit the Coyotes in Phoenix, just their eighth game inside the division out of 36.
"Anytime you can take advantage of a game against each other like that and win, you get some separation and you still have those games, and hopefully you take advantage of it," Kings coach Terry Murray said.
A blizzard basically shut down the New York metropolitan area on Sunday night and for much of Monday. However, all the snow and wind didn't stop the NHL.
The Islanders hosted the Canadiens on Sunday night while the Devils hosted the Maple Leafs. On Monday night, the Rangers hosted the Islanders, who bussed from Long Island to Manhattan on Sunday night.
While public officials urged people to stay home and off the roads, the NHL decreed that their games must go on and explained itself in a statement to the New York Times that said, "The NHL's hockey operations department continually monitors weather conditions when evaluating whether to play, and the league consults with the clubs and local governmental agencies. The general rule is that if the teams are in the scheduled city and the officials are in the scheduled city and the local government does not request a cancellation, the game is played. When a local government requests a cancellation, we cancel."