NEWARK, N.J. - It took till the last game of the entire first round, and even at that, it took double overtime. But the New Jersey Devils finally disposed of the Florida Panthers and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals early Friday morning.
For a franchise with three Stanley Cups and four conference crowns since 1995, and nine division titles since 1996, you would think that sort of feat would be a given.
But it's been a tough few years in the Garden State.
The Devils, in fact, missed the post-season last year for the first time since 1996. They went through two coaches, a miserable start, and in the end, a late rally couldn't stop the streak from folding. The previous three seasons, New Jersey lost in the first round, and since hockey returned after the 2004-05 lockout, New Jersey had won just two series total.
Before last night.
"Winning a playoff series goes a long ways for people," New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "It helps with confidence, and the first round—when you've struggled in the first round before—to get through it, it feels pretty good ... for a day.
"Then, we have to go face the Flyers."
Indeed, New Jersey's next opponent will be its neighbour to the south, the rival Philadelphia Flyers, who haven't played since Sunday, and handled Pittsburgh in six games en route to a Round 1 win.
The Devils, meanwhile, needed seven games—and overtime in both Games 6 and 7—to outlast the Panthers. Rookie forward Adam Henrique scored his second goal of the game at 3:47 of the second overtime to give the Devils a 3-2 victory over Florida, and set up the fifth post-season matchup between Philadelphia and New Jersey. Both teams have won two.
"I think this is going to be an outstanding series. We know enough about each other," New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello said Friday on WFAN-AM (660) in New York. "It's a series that will have to take discipline. In the playoffs, no matter what sport it is, there are turning points in every game. We need discipline and focus. We have to stay consistent."
The Flyers were indeed that, for three games against the Penguins, before dropping Games 4 and 5. On Sunday, though, forwards Claude Giroux and Danny Briere scored their sixth and fifth goals of the series, respectively, as Philadelphia bounced back and eliminated Pittsburgh—once and for all—with a 5-1 win.
"A lot of times, it comes from a group or a belief. I don't think it's something that you can necessarily teach," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said regarding his team's resiliency. "You either go down a road where you think you can fight back, or overcome things, or continue on with things, or you can't."
The Flyers were certainly resilient in 2010, when they clinched a playoff berth on the regular season's final day, then upset the Devils in the first round in five games. New Jersey was the East's No. 2 seed at the time, and the victory ignited Philadelphia, a No. 7 seed, to a run that ended in the Stanley Cup Finals, where it lost to Chicago in six games.
"We know we've got a really tough opponent ahead of us in Philly," Devils captain Zach Parise said after the win over Florida. "But this is a great feeling."
With only one of the top four East seeds advancing—the No. 1 Rangers—the Flyers now have the strange luxury of home-ice advantage in Round 2, after not having it in Round 1. Philadelphia (103) had one more point than New Jersey (102) in the regular season.
"Any team that makes it to the final eight is a good opponent," Laviolette said. "They had to do something right to knock off somebody. There will be no easy opponents. Sixteen teams make it, and everyone's goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and they all fight like mad to get it."
A key cog to this series will be the Flyers' power play against the Devils' penalty kill. Philadelphia was 12-of-23 with the extra man against the Penguins, and the Flyers will now face the regular-season's top short-handed unit. Though it didn't do much good in the Panthers' series. New Jersey, in fact, allowed nine goals on 18 power-play opportunities against Florida, including two in the third period of Game 7 that tied the game for the Panthers at 2-2, and forced overtime.
"All season long, we had a great penalty kill. We had a little bit of trouble with the power play of Florida, but we didn't let it affect us," Lamoriello said. "When we were giving up leads, we found a way to win, and that's a sign of a good hockey team."
The Devils indeed had trouble keeping leads vs. the Panthers. They lost a 3-0 advantage in Game 3, en route to a 4-3 defeat. And they let 2-0 edges in both Game 6 and 7 slip away before rallying against Florida.
"We're a resilient group," New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said with a laugh. "We've blown enough leads this year, so we're used to that."
NOTES: Brodeur has been New Jersey's goalie for all previous four series with Philadelphia. In 1995 and 2000, he and the Devils defeated the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to Stanley Cup titles. ... Giroux (14) and Briere (8) are two of top three active leading scorers in the post-season. Briere is tied with St. Louis forward Andy McDonald. ... The series win over Florida, his former team, was the first ever for DeBoer as a coach.