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State of the Devils

by Kevin Zalaznik || AHL On The Beat Archive  

Tuesday night, while televisions were tuned to the State of the Union address, Devils defenseman Peter Harrold was converted to a right winger – on the ice, not in the political realm.

Harrold, who was recalled by New Jersey from Albany Monday, became the 12th Devil to compete at both the NHL and AHL levels this season. Against the Buffalo Sabres, he filled in as a forward and assisted as a blue liner when asked.

On Wednesday, Harrold was back in Albany as the Devils prepared for the final two games before the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic, which sets up the mad dash to April and the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Unlike the President, head coach Rick Kowalsky doesn’t have the same political backdrop to deliver his own State of the Union. But Kowalsky and the Devils are aware of the intensity that is associated with the coming months.

“You convey that to the team,” Kowalsky said. “You cannot focus too much on the standings. I know it’s cliché but we have to focus on game in and game out and control what we can control. If you win and have success on the ice then all that other stuff will take care of itself.”

Entering Friday’s game at Binghamton, the Devils are two points out of the top spot of the Northeast Division, which would land them third in the Eastern Conference. On the other side, the team is six points from the bottom of the conference standings.

“Every game does matter and you try and explain that to the younger guys at the beginning of the year,” said assistant captain Chad Wiseman. “You don’t always see those points when you lose in a shootout or in overtime until the end of the year and you are three points out of the playoffs. Every day we look at the standings and we know where we are and we know where we have to be.”

So far the 2011-12 season has been an up-and-down ride. There was the gimpy start with one win in the first six games. Then the turnaround with five wins in the next six contests. The team earned points in eight consecutive games between Oct. 29 and Nov. 19, but followed with a 0-3-1-1 record between Dec. 9 and Dec. 17.

“The first half, the first thing that comes to mind is just inconsistency,” Kowalsky said. ”Obviously, we didn’t get off to the start we wanted and put ourselves behind the eight ball. Then we had a great November and early December.”

Call-ups and injuries are nothing new to the AHL or professional hockey at all levels for that matter. In all, 37 different players have dressed for Albany this season.

Some could use the personnel changes as an excuse for the peaks and valleys of the season, but the Devils have succeeded at different times because of their ability to adapt.

“Guys come in, adapt and step into their roles,” said defenseman Dan Kelly. “That’s the beauty of our team this year.”

“You hope that you’ve put the right things into place when some of the guys, who maybe don’t play as much, get bumped into bigger roles,” Kowalsky added. “You hope you have the depth to sustain you through those lean times. That’s when your structure and what you practice and preach everyday pays off.”

With 35 games remaining until Apr. 16, the first day of the postseason, the Devils are hoping to outpace the competition and return to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

“I explained it to the guys last week that these games are going to start to feel like playoff games,” Kowalsky said. “As much we like where we are, there are five or six teams that are in that same boat. It’s been a crazy season so far this year. The biggest thing is there are no nights off. We need to realize that these games are going to get tighter. We can’t wait until the end of March to turn it on. It has to start now.

“I think the biggest thing in the second half is just being consistent. We need to focus on the little things on a nightly basis. We need to be a hard team to play against.”

In the grand scheme of things Tuesday’s State of the Union address has no influence on the outcome of the Devils season. However, as Washington has laid out a road map, so has Kowalsky and his players.

The Devils success is game-planned around one ideal which was generalized — oddly enough — by a Canadian, Darcy Zajac.

“The only thing you can do is bring your work boots.”

With all but one game remaining against Eastern Conference opponents, the Devils are tying their boots tight and preparing for the challenge ahead.