New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs Hoping To Continue Strong Starts

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 10: Ilya Kovalchuk #17 of the New Jersey Devils is congratulated by teammates on the bench after scoring his first goal of the season during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Prudential Center on October 10, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

The New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs: two non-playoff teams from a year ago, both off to hot starts in 2011-12. In the end, which team will put together a better year?

I have a bet with a friend -- a friend who happens to be a New Jersey Devils fan -- that the Toronto Maple Leafs will finish ahead of his Devils in the Eastern Conference standings this season. Now, I'm not saying that either team will be a playoff team, or hey, maybe both will be playoff teams.

Really, I just made the bet to have the opportunity to make fun of a friend in the event that I win, but it got me thinking. How likely is this to actually happen? It's obviously very early in the season, but let's take a look.

For starters, despite a new head coach, the Devils are sounding a lot like the team that put together a miraculous run in the latter half of the 2010-11 season.

After losing the first game of the season to Philadelphia, Peter DeBoer's bunch has reeled off three straight wins, including two tough come-from-behind wins against Los Angeles and Nashville. They've done it both with and without Martin Brodeur, and Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have been their best players. 

But of most importance: they seem to have the same swagger they had when the put together that 23-3-2 run together a year ago. Via In Lou We Trust following the Nashville win:

They didn't pack it in after going down 2-0 early in the game nor when it seemed like a getting a puck past Rinne was going to be like squeezing blood from a stone.  No, they kept pushing the puck ahead, they kept firing shots, and they were rewarded.  It's the sort of performance that comes from a team with character, self-belief, and optimism.  While I would have liked to have avoided a come-from-behind result altogether, I'm most pleased to see early on in 2011-12 that the Devils aren't going to lay down for anyone.

I'm not sure anybody understands exactly what went wrong with the Devils under John MacLean early last season. It was some mix of injuries, a bad fit with a new coach and a snowball effect that took away team confidence, and sometimes with a team that clearly has as much talent as the Devils do, regaining that confidence is all a group needs to start putting wins on the board.

That's not to say that they'll continue that same almost-impossible pace from a year ago, but early signs are pointing to a Devils team that's going to at least contend for a playoff spot.

Now, how about those Maple Leafs? Well, if there's one thing we know about them, it's not to read too much into early season play. They're 3-0, leading the Northeast Division and looking very good doing it, with their best players also playing like their best players and James Reimer leading the way in goal.

But as you'll remember, that happened last year too. The PLAN THE PARADE jokes we've heard this season are actually rooted in the start of the season a year ago, when the team went 4-0 before completely falling off the map, a slide that they never really recovered from over the course of the year.

You'd hope that the Leafs would be able to learn from a year ago, and they're saying all the right things -- "You can't let it go to your head" -- but unlike with the Devils, the winning track record isn't there. One team has proven that they can win, while the other doesn't really deserve the benefit of the doubt. 

But let's hope the Leafs keep this going. I have a bet to win. 

Morning Skate runs weekdays. Check the archives.

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