The Devils started the season 10-29-2, which was by far the worst record in the NHL. It was also a worse record than the Islanders, which is more embarassing. Since then, however, they've gone 15-1-2, cut their playoff deficit from 27 points to 10 and even have Scott Burnside believing that this team is for real. Okay, I admit it, Burnside never said such a thing. Here are some of my theories as to why the Devils are playing so much better now.
The threat of being traded - Jason Arnott was the most vocal member of the Devils saying he would waive his no-movement clause to be traded to a contender, but then he saw Jamie Langenbrunner get shipped to Dallas, and out of fear that he too might be traded to Dallas and be Langenbrunner's teammate again, he has changed his mind.
They're "Moose"ing not booing - Johan Hedberg has been an intrical part of the Devils' recent success, but it took a while for that to happen. There is a logical reason for this. Hedberg earned the nickname "Moose" while playing for Pittsburgh, reflecting on his Manitoba Moose days. Somehow, Hedberg forgot this and believed Devils fans were booing him and the team, and they played miserably. Insert Jacques Lemaire, who reminded Hedberg of the chants, and the Devils turned into the hottest team in the NHL.
The Sidney Crosby theory - Interestingly enough, the day Sidney Crosby went out with his concussion (Jan. 4th) is also the day the Devils started playing better. They lost twice to the Flyers, but less than a week later, the 15-1-2 run began. Part of this reasoning is that Gary Bettman has less time to give orders to the refs about how to ruin the Devils, because he had to spend more time caring for Crosby.
Put the player on waivers theory - Lou Lamoriello placed Brian Rolston and Anssi Salmela on waivers, because both players were struggling badly. No team claimed either, and now both players are magically playing like superstars, or well, at least up to their contracts. Tim Sestito was recently waived. Did I miss something? Did Ilya Kovalchuk get waived at some point?
The John MacLean conspiracy - Maybe coaching matters. Under John MacLean, the Devils were a completely random team that had no idea a game was going on. It looked more like the Winter Classic family skate than an NHL game most of the time, but to cover that up, MacLean had the Devils shoot from everywhere, and the Devils averaged more than 30 shots per game. Since then, Jacques Lemaire has re-instituted the neutral zone trap, with the threat of Lou Lamoriello's secret stash of jelly jars being available to him if the players didn't cooperate.
First round draft picks - Due to the rather insane Ilya Kovalchuk contract, the Devils are going to lose a first round draft pick in one of the next four seasons, but Gary Bettman was going to rig the draft, give the Devils the first overall pick, and then force Lou to lose the draft pick this year. Since that would be slightly embarassing, Lou Lamoriello decided not to tank this year.
Recent history comebacks - The last two Eastern conference champions have been Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively. Both teams are Atlantic division teams that struggled miserably during the first half of the season, changed coaches, and made impressive runs to the Finals. New Jersey management must have felt that even at 10-29-2, the Devils could continue that tradition. Now all the Devils need to do is trade for Matt Cooke.
Attendance - The Devils have tried many different ways of trying to attract more fans to the Prudential Center. They even went to the extremes of building a $300 million arena, and lured the worst team in the NBA to play in it. This season, the Devils figured they'd tank the first half of the season, and then go on a historic run to the playoffs that would put the 1978 Yankees to shame. How does that sell tickets? Hmm, that's a good question.
The curse of Cam Janssen - The Devils have not won a playoff round since the trade of Cam Janssen. They really don't want that looming for one more year.
Incentives - John MacLean clearly didn't have the Devils motivated or inspired. Jacques Lemaire does. He offers everyone a box of doughnuts after each win, so even the suddenly injury-prone Martin Brodeur joins the fun. I'm not sure the long-term implications of this are smart, though.
New York City - Some Devils players are aware that Madison Square Garden is exactly 7 miles door-to-door from the Prudential Center. That also means New York City must be a similar distance. The players realize that by not allowing 7 goals per game, the games could end sooner, the post-game rants by the coaches will end sooner and the fear of having your car destroyed ends sooner...oh wait, that's only in Philly. Then they can go to Manhattan and find a place to eat...again.
Chico Resch - Devils goalies were getting sick of listening to Chico Resch going on endlessly about how he was a better goalie than them.