Brendan Smith was so happy to see the stars that night Devils Two goals down, he came back to beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden last October. He felt so free in the final seconds of the game that he could feel like he was floating across the ice.

Smith, a former Ranger defenseman has been a key figure in the Devils’ stunning journey from oblivion to one of the N.H.L.’s best and Most exciting teams and The win was more than just a victory over a rival. It was a statement by the nitro-charged team in early season DevilsThe future might be brighter for a player like Corey – who was 47 points behind Rangers in last season’s final game.

That will be tested again on Monday in a rematch at Madison Square Garden, as New Jersey’s schedule intensifies.

The game is open to all. Devils They are second in N.H.L. With a 21-5-1 record, they are second in the N.H.L. behind waves of electrifying skaters, especially Jack Hughes. No. 1 overall draft selection from 2019, an emerging superstar center dancer and He amazes everyone with his skill at balancing the puck on his stick, to the delight and amazement of all.

The Devils Six victories are within reach of the 27 that they had in their last season. That was just one of many losing campaigns. Recent Devils weren’t just bad, they seemed hopeless. New Jersey reached the Stanley Cup finals 2012 but has not made the playoffs since. and In eight years of competition, the division finished second or last in its division.

The Devil teams were easy to beat, just 2 points to take before the next game.

“You would check them off as must-wins when you played the Devils,” Smith recalls a recent procedure. “We would be upset if we didn’t leave with 2 points. That was an area we had to change. Change the culture and change the mentality.”

It is difficult to use the word “change” as a sufficient-enough term to explain the phenomena. Devils’ sudden metamorphosis from slug to soaring butterfly. They can play as fast, or faster, than anyone in the league — vastly different from the highly successful, but often plodding, defensive Devils Of old.

They now expect to win and This, for a long time Devils It has caused culture shock for players. Damon Severson was a New Jersey defenseman who was drafted in 2012. Devils Had “weeded out” Players (whom he did not name) who were content to leave after a 5-1 defeat and devour cheeseburgers and As if nothing had actually happened to fries

“It’s a shot to your ego,” Severson spoke out about the bad years. “You’re a loser, you’re not good. But the worst part about it was that we had some guys that didn’t really care in previous years. It would be like, ‘I know I’m not going to be here much longer, so I’m just going to get my paycheck and hope we play well and then go home at night and everything is hunky dory.’

“It was a really bad culture and mind-set that way. It’s nice to see we’ve turned that page and brought in some better guys and got rid of the problems.”

Tom Fitzgerald, Devils general manager, said he was not aware of any specific cases of players’ not caring. He did add several respected veterans to make the team more committed. and A team atmosphere that is supportive and connected, even those who are not familiar with winning.

Smith is one of them along with Ondrej Palat, who is hurt now but won two Stanley Cups for the Lightning. John Marino, a Pittsburgh defenseman, was acquired in an offseason trade and has been to the playoffs each of his three previous seasons. and Erik Haula was a member of the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals.

“I value championship pedigree,” Fitzgerald said. “We want good people, people who care, people who take pride in their work and are willing to self-assess and want to get better.”

For a team that had seven goalies last season, Vitek Vanecek was traded to Washington in a draft pick. He is now fourth in the league’s goals against average, at 2.30. Devils’ fortunes, for now.

Fitzgerald knew his team would improve during this season. The conveyor belt of injured goalies made last year’s season miserable. Devils The league’s fourth-highest total of goals surrendered was 302, which is the fourth highest. They have surrendered some of the highest-danger scoring opportunities this year. and They have the highest rate of puck possession in offensive zone.

This could simply have been when many of their high draft picks began bearing fruit. New Jersey has twice selected the top pick since 2017. and Also drafted fourth, seventh and second.

“When you’re at the bottom of the barrel for years, you get a lot of picks,” Hughes stated. “We hoped to get there, but we didn’t know when. I can’t even say we are there yet. But we are playing really well as a team.”

Nico Hischier, No. In 2017, he was the No. 1 pick, and he was 22 years old when he was made captain in 2021. Fitzgerald said that Hischier had grown in the role this year.

“We are still young,” Hischier said, “A fantastic two-way center.” “But we aren’t youngsters anymore. We have experience.”

Fans who were disappointed expected some progress this year, too. and The season began badly and the impatience was scathing. The Devils They lost their season opener in Philadelphia. and Miles Wood, a left-winger who has been in New Jersey since 2016, complained that he was tired of playing on a bad team after the game.

Two more nights later, the Devils lost their home opener, Lindy Ruff, the head coach, caught the pitiless end of the spectators’ wrath as they chanted, “Fire Lindy.” It was the lowest point.

But a little less than a month later, during a franchise-record-tying 13-game win streak, the fans chanted, “Sorry Lindy,” It was a mass mea culpa by passionate fans who acknowledged its despair. Fans who had grown so accustomed to winning were shocked when the streak ended against the Maple Leafs. pelted the ice with full cans of beer After three failed attempts Devils goals.

“They’ve had enough of losing,” Ruff stated last week that he had just finished a practice. “My job is to put the tough skin on and keep moving ahead. We didn’t change anything. We said, keep doing the right things and we’ll win hockey games.”

They did it at an incredible pace and became the sixth team to win 21 of 26 league games. and Hughes was the first person to win 13 November games. Hughes is electrifying. Never more than Tuesday when he carried his puck into a box with four Chicago defenders and squirted it out. and Dougie Hayes scored on a one timer, making a perfect pass.

You can find many other highlights like these. and Hughes, who is just 21 years old, leads the charge in the Devils With 14 goals and 33 points. He is on pace to break Patrik Elias’s club record of 96 points and This young star has all the characteristics of a future superstar.

“He’s close to that already,” Ruff said. “Every year, I’ve seen growth. He surprised me when he scored 26 last year, and he’s continued to surprise me. He’s got a skating ability and lateral movement on the ice that very few have.”

There is nothing better than two Hughes on the roster. The Devils drafted Hughes’s younger brother, Luke Hughes, with the No. 4th overall selection last year. Luke Hughes is a stunning sophomore defenseman at Michigan. He could join the club as an April member. and maybe move in to his brother’s apartment.

Palat may return to the new year after undergoing groin surgery. Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. This would be particularly satisfying for those who have served the longest. Devils Wood is one of these players. The four previous seasons with the Islanders were particularly painful. and Rangers attend the conference finals every year.

Maybe it is. Devils’ turn.

“If you had told me we would win 13 straight, that would have been a stretch,” Wood spoke. “But I know this team has the talent to be where we are now.”