As an NHL player, Jacques Lemaire only knew the Montreal Canadiens: Playing 12 Hall of Fame seasons and winning eight Stanley Cups.
As an NHL coach, Lemaire knew the Habs for parts of two seasons, from 1983-85. He wanted to remain an assistant coach. GM Serge Savard needed him as a head coach. After coaching 80 games in 1984-85, Lemaire finally convinced the brass to give him a front office gig instead.
Lemaire was hired by the New Jersey Devils in 1993, and has coached 15 NHL seasons with the Devils and the Minnesota Wild. With the Devils specifically, he helped bring to New Jersey the kind of prestige, work ethic and team play that were hallmarks of his Habs teams. The foundation has held for nearly two decades.
Some of his 567 wins with those two teams have come at the expense of his former franchise in Montreal: Lemaire is 18-10-5 behind the bench against the Canadiens overall, and 15-7-3 with the Devils, including 1-0 this season.
The Devils are still mathematically alive in the playoff race, but are finished the moment they fail to gain a point (or when the current No. 8 seed gains a single point).
The Canadiens occupy sixth in the East with 89 points in 78 games. The Buffalo Sabres have 87 in 77 games, and the New York Rangers have 87 in 78 games. The Carolina Hurricanes have 84 in 77 games; it would take a total collapse for the Canadiens for the Canes to catch them.
Which brings us to the fact that Montreal has lost four of five by a combined score of 18-5. Can Lemaire and the Devils keep the Habs' slide going in tonight's game in New Jersey (7 p.m. EST, preview here)?
The Devils are playing for pride now, but they're also playing for the coach that led them from an early season disaster to a major flirtation with the playoffs last month.
Lemaire said he hasn't made up his mind yet and won't until after the regular-season finale April 10. All he's thinking about now is getting the Devils to finish the season strong.
He believes the best way to judge this team's performance this season is not by its 10-29-2 first half or the 23-3-2 surge that followed, but by how the team plays in these last half-dozen games.
"It would be very simple just to say, 'Hey, we came back, we did well up to now, it's fine,'" Lemaire said. "But it will be fine if we play well from now until the end."
That's why tonight's game won't be an easy one for Montreal; especially since the Devils will get another jolt with the return of Zach Parise from injury, as the Devils star is due to play his first game since Oct. 30.
Meanwhile, the Habs are facing questions about confidence in their own coach Jacques Martin entering the final games of the season. From the Montreal Gazette:
Martin was asked about comments made by former Canadiens forward Georges Laraque, now a television analyst, who said this week he'd heard Martin had lost the confidence of some of his players. The Canadiens dumped Laraque a year ago, buying out the remainder of his contract after he failed to fulfill his role as the team's enforcer — which also didn't fit with Martin's philosophy.
"I'm not aware of what was asked (of Laraque). But it's not the first time players haven't been happy with coaches . . . former players," Martin said. "You always have in a room certain players who like what you're doing, others don't like it, and a third are in the middle.
"I think as a coach you take the decisions that are the best for the team and my job is to prepare the team as best as possible."
If the last few months are any indication, Lemaire will have the Devils prepared to help spoil his old franchise's season.