It took what seemed like forever, but in the last game of the NHL’s opening playoff round the New Jersey Devils became the last team to qualify for the Conference semifinals when they eliminated the Florida Panthers in double overtime of Game 7. Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique scored the first and last goals of the game and Martin Brodeur turned back the clock and finished with 43 saves for his first Game 7 win since the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals against Anaheim.”I guess somebody’s got to be the hero right?” asked Henrique after the dramatic win at 12:17 am. “I just wanted to get it on net; I think I blacked out when I heard the thud at the back of the net.”
“Winning a playoff series goes a long way,” Brodeur told reporters early Friday morning after the Devils advanced out of the first round for the first time since 2007. “I think for people it’s just a confidence and sometimes you need adversity; the first round, I think, when you haven’t been in the playoffs, especially the year before and we’ve been struggling getting out of the first round, when you get through that it feels good for a day and then after that we’ve got to face the Flyers.”
Ah yes, the Philadelphia Flyers (who will have a full week off by the time the puck drops for Game 1 Sunday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center) are the next obstacle for the Undead Devils after they rolled past the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. The Flyers finished a mere point ahead of the Devils during the regular season, but after their dismantling of everyone’s favorite darling Penguins they will be considered favorites in the second round series.
In my opinion, the Devils have more than a decent chance to advance past their Atlantic Division rivals and here are the three main reasons.
1) Goaltending: Sure Philly has the master of the universe who only fears bears in forests or whatever, but Ilya Bryzgalov doesn’t have such a great track record in postseason play with a 16-15 career record. His save percentage is ghastly over the last two seasons, and at the other end will be Brodeur who has won 16 games in three different playoff seasons over his career. Granted the last time he accomplished that feat was nine years ago, but New Jersey’s recent playoff failures could hardly be attributed to his play and mostly the faults of inconsistent scoring. Even though Bryzgalov was 3-0 versus his rivals during the season, that all means nothing now; it was a lifetime ago.
2) Depth: The Devils fourth line (the CBGB line) accounted for 9 points (5g-4a) and the goals they scored all seemed to come at crucial times. All three players (Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta) weren’t on the roster at the start of the season, but who knows where they’d be without them. Coach Pete DeBoer has not hesitated to put them out on the ice in crunch time, and he has consistently praised Bernier for being a “playoff-type player.” Bernier has even seen time on the second line with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus in certain situations, replacing Petr Sykora a few shifts per game. All three of New Jersey’s goals in Game 7 came via rookies, Gionta and Henrique, instead of established superstars like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Expect Kovalchuk and Elias to have big series against the Flyers after not making much noise against the pesky Panthers. Philadelphia has depth too and they scored a gazillion goals against the porous Pens, but the Devils aren’t the Penguins and this isn’t the first round.
3) Momentum: The Devils, for the first time in their 30-year history, won a Game 6 and a Game 7 in overtime and they will enter the series on a high. They know they can hang with the Flyers, they split the season series 3-3, and in one of the games they held a 6-0 lead in Philly’s house. Philadelphia lost two of their last three playoff games, almost allowing Pittsburgh to force a Game 7 before finally stomping them out. Last season, the eventual Cup Champs (Boston Bruins) won a Game 7 in overtime against Montreal in the opening round and rode that momentum all the way to the Finals with an older goalie. If the Devils can stay out of the penalty box, they will have an excellent chance to end their rivals’ season and advance to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2003. “We know we have a real tough opponent in front of us in Philly,” said Parise minutes after Game 7, already looking ahead to the latest chapter between the two. Twice the Devils beat the Flyers in the playoffs (1995, 2000) and each time the Stanley Cup was won by New Jersey.
Dan Rice can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter: @DRdiablo321