NEWARK, N.J. -- They said that it wasn't a time for words; it was time for action. But with their backs against the wall, down 3-1 in the series to the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils' actions seemed as empty as the words they spoke a day before, as empty as the Prudential Center began to look with four minutes left in the game. With the 3-0 loss Thursday night, the Devils' once-promising season ended with a whimper, just another early exit for a team that has become all too used to the feeling in recent years.
For the last week, the team said over and over that it hadn't thought about the last two years, about the disappointing fall to the Rangers in 2008 and then the shocking end to last year's against-all-odds story, the Carolina Hurricanes. But maybe it should have. With their third-straight first-round exit, the New Jersey Devils may quietly be turning into the Eastern Conference's San Jose Sharks, a team unable to win when the games matter most.
"We did not play playoff hockey," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said after the game. "Philly did a better job in that department. It is a little frustrating because all along I felt that we had a good team ... [But] I don't think I've seen this team play at their best yet."
Just 10 days ago, there didn't seem to be much evidence to suggest that the Flyers had a fighting chance. A team that just barely made the playoffs, that struggled with an up-and-down season and enough injuries to fill a doctor's waiting room, shouldn't have had it this easy against the winners of their division, but ultimately, the difference was that one team knew just what it takes to win playoff hockey games. It didn't matter scorers JeffCarter and SimonGagne wouldn't be available, both nursing foot injuries that will sideline them for weeks. It didn't matter they were relying on a third-string goalie that had been the guy who let the Devils back into a series 10 years ago.
What mattered, though, was that their biggest warrior, IanLaperriere, blocked a shot with his face early in the third period. It mattered that he stood there in line with the shot and paid a dear price, 60 or 70 stitches to close the gash above his right eye. It mattered because that is what helps a team win playoff hockey games.
"[We had] that relentless pressure, that relentless physicality, grinding away at them, [and had] guys sacrificing and doing whatever it takes," Philadelphia defenseman ChrisPronger said. "You get a good-looking guy like Lappy throwing his face in front of one there ... Sometimes blocking one with your face is what it takes. Guys see that on the bench, and that makes them want to push harder and sacrifice more."
Although Pronger jokes, it was a frightening moment for Laperriere, whose wears his tough style of play on his face, a mug that has begun to resemble an abstract painting. "I walked into the medical room, and that's where I couldn't see anything," he says. "Trust me, it's not a good feeling. Like I said, I want to see my kids grow up with both of my eyes. So maybe this is what it took to make me realize I need to wear a shield by making a stupid mistake again. I'll wear one for the rest of my career. I'll fight as much; I'll take off my helmet, but this stupid macho thing in my head, tonight made me realize that I've got to smarten up in that regard."
Ultimately, the shot-blocking, the race for 50-50 pucks, the battle in the corners and in front of the net were how the Flyers pulled this series away from the Devils. Philadelphia's physicality didn't necessarily come from their fists in this series -- there were no fighting majors in the five-game series -- but rather in their willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the good of the team. In Game 5, Philadelphia blocked 15 shots to New Jersey's five.
What certainly didn't help the Devils' cause was an impotent power play they couldn't execute even when the Flyers invited them back in over and over. New Jersey failed to capitalize on even one of eight power play chances, while Philadelphia, with the third-best unit in the league, made good on their opportunities. Just 3:15 into the game, after killing off an early penalty and drawing one on the Devils, the Flyers struck early, when second-year winger ClaudeGiroux whipped a spin-o-rama pass, after hearing teammate DannyBriere call from the far post. It found a stick and skidded past New Jersey goalie MartinBrodeur, who could cover post-to-post quite quickly enough.
Giroux, whose had a breakout performance in last year's playoffs, seems to have a calling for big games. At 8:12 in the second period, he became the beneficiary of a fortuitous bounce. Mike Richards centered the puck, which bounced off a Devils defenseman AndyGreene's foot. The puck laid untouched in the high slot, just waiting for Giroux, who launched a big shot that beat Brodeur high, blocker-side. He followed up two minutes later with another rebound on the power play. It was a huge night for the young player, who seems to have nights like these against Brodeur. He led the Flyers in the regular season with six points against the surefire Hall of Fame goalie. It was efforts like his, like Laperriere's, that made the difference. In the end, the Flyers just did more things to win a playoff hockey game -- and the series -- than the Devils.