Following their 3-2 overtime victory Friday night to eliminate the New York Rangers in six games in the Eastern Conference Final, the New Jersey Devils are heading back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2003.
While many believed the conference final would take the same pattern as the last time these two clubs met with the Final at stake in 1994 -- New Jersey led the series 3-2 after five games 18 years ago, only to fall victim to Mark Messier's hat trick in the "guaranteed win" in Game 6 and Stephane Matteau's heroics in overtime of Game 7 -- the series would instead go in a completely opposite direction. When rookie Adam Henrique found the puck amid a mass of humanity in the crease and potted it behind Henrik Lundqvist just 1:03 into the extra session, the run of the underdogs continued for at least another round. Having been picked to lose both the conference semifinals and finals, NJ obviously didn't get the memo regarding the prognostications.
Looking at the present version of the Devils, they've exhibited stark contrasts from the club that made four final appearances in a nine year span -- winning three -- but they also share some similarities.
There are two chief differences in this season's team that has qualified to compete for the championship -- beginning Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings -- and the one that dominated the East for nearly a decade ending with the triumph in '03:
- Peter DeBoer's up-tempo style of play is in another world from the Jacques Lemaire-induced center ice "trap" quagmire that bottled the opposition and made games akin to watching paint dry. While current-GM Lou Lamoriello was the architect for the entire stretch, this year's edition has so many more offensive weapons, one that works well with DeBoer's aggressive forechecking system. The likes of Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Scott Gomez over the stretch of Stanley Cups have made way for the present version of top contributors -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, David Clarkson, and Henrique. The players of the past could trap all night, waiting for an opponent's miscue in order to launch a lethal counterattack. The 2012 team has been much more attack-oriented, pinning their opposition deep in their own ends for long stretches of play. After struggling through a second overtime period in Game 7 to take down the upstart Florida Panthers in the first round, the Devils' work ethic and forechecking pressure dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in five games and the Rangers in six.
- New Jersey does not have the big name presence on the blue line as the previous champions, with multiple Cup-winners Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, and Brian Rafalski anchoring the defense. 2012's group of rear guards are relative no-names -- Anton Volchenkov is probably the biggest, but Bryce Salvador, Minnesota Wild cast off Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, and Peter Harrold do not appear to be a fearsome unit. But they've been very good, and Salvador has been a surprise offensive contributor, tallying three times in 18 games -- after going goalless in 82 regular season contests. His play is typical of the way the Devils have stepped up and come up big at the most opportune times.
Sure there are contrasts, but there are also some familiar elements to the 2012 East triumph and the Devils' past glory:
- Holdovers Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias, as well as the return of Petr Sykora. Brodeur has already cemented his place as one of the all-time greatest -- if not the greatest -- goaltenders in NHL history, having been one of the principal reasons for all of New Jersey's playoff success, save the Sean Burke-led miracle run to the 1988 Conference Final before Brodeur came into the League. The 40-year-old Brodeur, perhaps in his swan song season, came up huge during a third period in which New York dominating edge in quality scoring chances. While he hasn't had to stand on his head nearly as much as in previous postseasons for the Devils to be successful, he has come up with the big stop almost every time it has been required this spring. Both Elias and Sykora have not had the type of offensive numbers as they did in previous postseasons, but their veteran presences have been enough to compliment what they have contributed.
- In the mid-90's, there was a trio of unsung heroes playing on an effective line of grinders: "The Crash Line" of Randy McKay, Bobby Holik, and Mike Peluso. The line provided the energy that was expected, but also came through with numerous timely goals to give New Jersey an added dynamic. Fast forward to 2012, and the fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier have been invaluable. In addition to shutting down the opposition's top scorers, they have also kept the forechecking pressure applied, pinning opponents deep in their own zone, and scoring just when the club needed it. Carter came through with the game-winner by finishing off a Gionta pass late in the third period of Game 5, then opened the scoring by knocking home the rebound of a Gionta shot Friday night in Game 6. The line has combined for nine goals and 19 points in 18 games, with a collective +16 rating in the plus / minus category. There is no doubt DeBoer has all the confidence in the world in the trio, and enables him to roll all four lines regularly. No wonder New Jersey appears more fresh than its opponents, who end up chasing the puck more than possessing it.
The Devils have used just the right mixture of the old with the new, and they host Los Angeles in Game 1 of the Cup Final Wednesday night.