The New Jersey Devils have more to worry about than the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.
Forget that the Flyers beat the Devils in five of six regular-season games, including one in overtime.
The Devils need to worry about themselves in the post-season, where they’ve been a major disappointment in recent years. They were knocked out in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs the past two seasons by Carolina and the Rangers and they were eliminated in the second round the two years before that.
While this will mark the Devils’ 13th straight year in the playoffs, they haven’t done much since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003.
And who can forget last year? They gave up two goals in the final 1:20 of regulation in Game 7 against Carolina to blow the series.
“We believe in our group,” captain Jamie Langenbrunner said after the Devils practised for Wednesday’s opening game at the Prudential Center in the best-of-seven series. “We believe we can accomplish a lot. We have to go out and prove it though. We set ourselves up pretty good the last couple of years and not answered. I think the pressure is on us to do that.”
That’s one of the reasons Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello hired Jacques Lemaire, the man who led New Jersey to its first Stanley Cup in 1995.
“Myself, I just arrived,” Lemaire quipped when asked about the Devils’ recent failures in the post-season. “Give me a chance.”
The grey-haired Lemaire wasn’t worried about his players, either.
“They know why they didn’t win, probably,” he said. “So they will try not to repeat it. I don’t need to talk about the past. I don’t need to talk about that at all.”
The present is more a concern and Lemaire likes the way his team is playing after finishing the season with a 6-2-3 record in its last 11 games.
Philadelphia struggled down the stretch, posting a 5-7-1 mark that almost cost it a spot in the playoffs. The Flyers should be riding an emotional wave after grabbing the conference’s No. 7 seed with an emotional 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for the last five days,” Flyers left wing Simon Gagne said. “The last two games was really playoff hockey for us. It’s like your playoffs already started. Going into Jersey, our goal is to go there and get one game and get the advantage for us.”
The biggest difference between the teams is in goal.
Martin Brodeur has led New Jersey to three Cups, started 176 post-season games and posted a 45-25-6 record with nine shutouts and a 2.24 goals against average.
Flyers counterpart Brian Boucher has not played in a full Stanley Cup game since 2000. He became their goaltender by default after injuries to Ray Emery and Michael Leighton, finishing with a 9-18-3 record, one shutout and a 2.76 GAA.
“We got hit with some injuries, we had to regroup and we stumbled a little bit, but we found our way back and we played strong,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “We needed to get back to playing that style of hockey, that brand of hockey. I think we did down the stretch. We weren’t always rewarded with the games we needed to win. We put ourselves in position where we had to win the last game of the year and we came through.”
Philadelphia outscored New Jersey 20-13 in the season series, converting four times with the extra skater while limiting New Jersey to five goals on 32 chances on the power play. The one thing they did well was crash the net, using their size to bother Brodeur.
“I think whenever we’ve had big games this year, we’ve always seemed to kind of respond and have a good game ourselves,” Flyers centre Mike Richards said. “Whenever we play the rivals, we seem to play well.”
The one difference this year compared to 2009 is the Devils have two major offensive threats. Joining U.S. Olympic hero Zach Parise will be Ilya Kovalchuk, who was acquired before the trading deadline and finished the season with 41 goals, three more than Parise.
“As a team and personally you go through disappointment,” Brodeur said. “What are you going to do about what happened a year ago? We’ll try to build something new. Every time you have a chance, you can do something great and that’s the way I approach it.”