New Jersey has reached the conference finals for the first time since winning the Cup back in 2003 after closing out Philadelphia 3-1 in Game 5 of their second-round series on Tuesday.
This Devils squad bears some resemblance to the New Jersey teams that won three Cups between 1995 and 2003. Martin Brodeur is still in goal. The Devils are still capable of playing stifling defense. And Lou Lamoriello is still calling the shots as the club’s CEO, president and general manager.
But there are differences, too. Peter DeBoer is in his first season behind the New Jersey bench and in his first year with the organization, period. Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer are long gone, and now the big stars — and big contracts — are located up front with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise instead.
The Devils have also found a new way to drain the excitement out of the game. In the 90s, the Devils were the standard bearers for the neutral-zone trap that brought much of the entertainment of the game to a screeching halt. But at least those New Jersey teams had the Crash Line with Mike Peluso, Randy McKay and Co. to enliven things with a good old donnybrook every so often.
This edition has adopted a different philosophy in regards to the rough stuff. The Devils have scratched tough guys Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen throughout the playoffs and spent the five-game series with the Flyers turning the other cheek rather than engaging Philadelphia in any extracurricular activity.
When Claude Giroux took out his frustrations with a head shot on Dainius Zubrus in Game 4, the Devils did not retaliate, leaving it up to the league, which did suspend Giroux for Game 5. In that fifth game, the hits kept coming.
Zac Rinaldo, who returned to the lineup with Giroux out, crushed Anton Volchenkov with a huge hit in the first and upended Zubrus with a questionable hit in the second, while Wayne Simmonds drove Marek Zidlicky headfirst into the boards with a questionable hit of his own. Each time, the Devils skated away rather than confronting the Flyers.
In fairness, Volchenkov had already gotten in his own blow with a huge hit on Brayden Schenn earlier in the game and the Devils did get a power play out of Rinaldo’s hit on Zubrus, which was called interference. New Jersey didn’t do much to make the Flyers pay for that penalty with no shots on the power play. The Devils also managed just one shot in the final second of another power play, while the Flyers had two shots shorthanded after a Scott Hartnell high-stick on Travis Zajac.
The only time New Jersey scored on the power play was when Kovalchuk struck after James van Riemsdyk was called for holding, the mildest infraction of the evening.
It was quite a change from the Philadelphia’s first series against Pittsburgh. Those two Keystone State rivals combined for 312 penalty minutes, nine misconducts, six fighting majors, five game misconducts and a match penalty in six games. They also combined for 56 goals and record TV ratings.
The Devils don’t provide such must-see TV moments, but what they do is effective. Pittsburgh wasn’t especially well-served by all the shenanigans in its series, with three different Penguins drawing suspensions and the Flyers sending the favored Pens packing. New Jersey’s decision to frustrate Philadelphia by not engaging and giving the Flyers and their fans a chance to feed off the energy from that physical play served them well. There were no fights, few scrums and just 100 total penalty minutes in the five games between New Jersey and Philadelphia, as the men in stripes got a well-deserved break after the workout they had in that opening round.
The Devils did provide some entertainment in other ways, most notably with the unique way David Clarkson scored what proved the game-winner. That goal came when Ilya Bryzgalov tried to clear the puck and it deflected off Clarkson in front and back into the goal. Of course, by eliminating the eccentric and ever-quotable Bryzgalov, the Devils also created a humangous loss for the overall entertainment package of these playoffs.
New Jersey’s approach was a loss for hockey fans hoping to see the kind of entertaining, albeit occasionally excessive, mayhem that marked the opening round. But it produced four wins in just five games to move New Jersey on to the conference final, and that’s all that really matters to the Devils.
After all, New Jersey is used to drawing scorn for the lack of excitement in their game. If their newfound discipline can produce another championship like their old trapping ways did, they’ll gladly accept any and all such criticism while hoisting the Cup.