The New Jersey Devils came into their Eastern Conference Semifinal meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers as the consensus underdogs. They went from a seven-game series (plus two overtimes) against the pesky Florida Panthers right into their series with the Flyers.
Philadelphia closed out the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in six before having an entire week to recuperate from a very physical series. But when all was said and done, it was New Jersey who looked like the fresher of the two clubs.
As the saying goes, every dog has its day.
The Devils came into the series with a game plan, stuck with it, and executed to perfection for the better part of their five-game series triumph, slamming the door shut on Philly with a 3-1 win Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
"Really proud of our group," said New Jersey head coach Peter DeBoer in his postgame press conference. "Proud of how we stuck to the game plan. Proud of how we turned the other cheek. Proud of how hard we competed against a very hardworking and competitive team."
And he should be proud of his team, as it outworked Philadelphia at every turn. It outhit the Flyers, beat them to loose pucks, and basically forechecked Philly into submission. Philadelphia did not have an answer to counter the style employed by the Devils, and in the end it was just too much. The extended time spent in the Flyers' end of the ice wore down the club's defensemen, leaving holes in the coverage and leading to numerous high-quality scoring opportunities.
"Well, we tried to adjust but it wasn't enough, you gotta give, for whatever reason, you gotta give them credit," said Jaromir Jagr. "They play excellent game. Like I said, they were a little bit quicker and stronger, especially on the boards."
It's almost as if New Jersey spent significant time watching video of how the New York Rangers dominated the Flyers to the tune of 6-0 in the regular season, because the Devils carried out the same game plan the entire series.
They pressured the puck carrier relentlessly, especially when it was Claude Giroux. After rocking Pittsburgh's world with six goals and 14 points during the first round, the NHL's leading postseason scorer was held to two goals and three points in four contests (Giroux was suspended for Game 5 for his hit on Dainius Zubrus in Game 4).
Giroux -- the motor that makes the Flyers' engine go -- particularly had no time when Philly was on the power play, as two defenders were on Giroux even before he touched the puck. This led to the Philadelphia man advantage -- which had clicked at a blistering 52.1 percent success rate against Pittsburgh -- to be successful just three times in 19 power-play opportunities.
"I think our penalty kill was great all season," said David Clarkson of the regular season NHL-leading unit following the victory. "Marty stood on his head and played unbelievable."
Perhaps the strangely wild first-round series was a bad thing for the Flyers, as they used a run-and-gun offensive attack that led to 30 goals in the six-game set against the Pens. They never seemed to be able to get into the mode of tight-checking, defensive contests where the win needed to be ground out with extreme hard work.
It was exactly how New Jersey played, and the Devils were able to dictate the pace of play.
"They were stingy," said Scott Hartnell, who was frustrated with just a goal and three points in the five games. "They were tight. You had to fight for every inch of ice that you got. When you had some time and space in the offensive zone, it seemed like they closed pretty fast. You had to make plays fast and it seemed like they were a step forward the whole series."
For Philadelphia it was a very strange postseason, one in which scoring the first goal of a game was a curse. The team that took the lead in 10 of their 11 playoff contests lost the game, and the Flyers statistics were illogical. On seven occasions, the Orange-and-Black lit the lamp in seven of their 11 tilts, and they dropped six of those games. Of the four in which Philadelphia yielded the opener, they came back to win them all.
As a matter of fact New Jersey became the first team since 2008 to win four games in a series when they were trailing in each game.
"Most of the series I think they scored first anyway, so that kind of worked out good for us," said goaltender Martin Brodeur. "So we're pretty happy about the way we bounced back from a little adversity in games."
Devils' sniper Ilya Kovalchuk was a force throughout the series. He played sluggishly in Game 1 and appeared to have an injury, sitting out Game 2. But the Russian superstar was able to notch points in each of the four games he appeared, scoring two and posting seven points.
In the end it was New Jersey who carried play to the point of eventually tiring the Philly skaters -- and in particular, the defensemen -- sticking to DeBoer's game plan and following it letter perfect.