Behind two first-period goals and 27 saves by goalie Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils dropped the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-1, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal at the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night, taking the series and advancing to the Conference finals for the first time since 2003.
But ultimately, Game 5 wasn't the reason the Flyers' season is now over. That's been in the works for days now. Their lack of urgency against the Devils early in the series set a collective lethargy. Lethargy begot frustration. Frustration begot undisciplined play, and that, of course, begets penalties. And eventually, the penalties cost them.
After failing to capitalize on three power plays in the first two periods of Game 5, the Devils booked their ticket to the Eastern Conference final with a power-play goal early in the third. The Devils' big-bodied center Dainius Zubrus took the faceoff, but it was rookie Adam Henrique, who touched a pass back to Ilya Kovalchuk at the point. Finding a shooting lane, the winger fired a high shot that beat Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov high on his glove side, giving New Jersey the 3-1 lead.
Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk was in the box, serving a two-minute minor for holding New Jersey's Patrik Elias, an offensive-zone penalty that smacked of exasperation. Like many of his Philadelphia teammates, the 23-year-old winger, who has been the thorn in the side of Brodeur for the last two weeks, tried to get New Jersey to bite. It had worked before, and truth be told, against almost any other team in the league, the irksome things that the Flyers might do or say on the ice would get a reaction (see: Crosby, Sidney).
But not the Devils. Apart from perhaps Detroit, there isn't a more composed team than New Jersey. With one of the oldest rosters in the league, the Devils are more interested in hockey than shenanigans. While the rest of the league showed off how big and tough they were during the raucous opening round, New Jersey and Florida silently had the best series. Philadelphia was embroiled in a gong show with their intrastate rivals, and it was something that coach Peter DeBoer watched carefully. Before the start of the series against Philadelphia, he and his staff hammered one particular point into his players: Do not indulge them.
"[We wanted to] stay out of the scrums and stay away from the stuff after the whistle," New Jersey captain Zach Parise said. "We know that's the way they get a lot of their excitement and energy. That's the way their crowd gets a lot of excitement and energy, and we played disciplined. We skated away from it. We didn't allow them to generate anything off that."
The self-discipline was something Pittsburgh wasn't capable of channeling. And Parise admitted it wasn't always easy to skate away. "But I think that frustrates them even more, that we weren't getting involved," he said. "And once you see that happening, it gets easier."
Like an irritating little brother, Philadelphia didn't get the reaction they were looking for, and their game subsequently began to fall apart. By the time the Flyers had realized that the Devils legitimately threatened their Stanley Cup hopes, it was too late. Frustration had already set in by Game 4, which the Devils won 4-2 Sunday. Star center Claude Giroux lost his cool and checked Zubrus in the head, which earned Giroux a one-game suspension. He was the Flyers' difference-maker in the first round, scoring 14 points in six games against the Penguins. Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette dubbed him the best player in the world. But against New Jersey, he didn't live up to the billing. Virtually invisible for much of the series, he scored three points -- none of them at even strength. He was a minus-1 in all four games he played and was limited to just eight shots for the series.
"I've got to give New Jersey credit for the way they played defense, the way they forechecked and kept it from being the game that we wanted," Laviolette said. "We never seemed to get down that road."
The Devils forecheck indeed stifled Philadelphia. Their ability to sustain pressure and time in the Flyers' zone through the first four games of the series surprised plenty of people, who had written New Jersey off because of recent playoff failures or the lingering stigma attached to the Cup-winning Devils of the '90s and early 2000s. But these are not your father's Devils. These aren't even the same Devils from one month ago.
"Definitely, we are [a better team now than at the end of the regular season]," Parise said. "There's still room for improvement, definitely, but I think we see how we need to play in order to win, and we're starting to do that more consistently now. We've been able to do it line after line after line. And that's hard to defend."
The irony of Tuesday's game, however, is that it wasn't New Jersey's best. The Devils didn't own the Flyers for stretches as they did in the previous three games, but as is customary in the playoffs, it came down to bounces -- opportune or inopportune, depending on your allegiances. Though the Flyers opened the scoring, when winger Max Talbot put in his own rebound just 7:18 into the game, it wasn't long before the Devils answered. Two minutes later, defenseman Bryce Salvador took a feed from rookie Adam Henrique and took a shot from the top of the left circle. The puck deflected off Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds' stick and over Bryzgalov's blocker. It appeared that New Jersey winger Alexei Ponikarovsky may have been offsides as Henrique entered the zone, but there was no call.
The point, however, became moot a few minutes later, when Bryzgalov essentially scored on himself. One would assume that the goalie, who pontificates on such topics as astronomy, might have a better grasp of elementary physics. He shot the puck right into Devils forward David Clarkson, and it ricocheted off his stick and into the net. But Bryzgalov wasn't completely at fault on that one. He only had the puck because Philadelphia defenseman Kimmo Timonen had passed it back to him. Timonen, a 13-year veteran, put the puck on the stick of a goalie whose puck-handling prowess is nonexistent, an ill-advised move.
It was one of plenty the Flyers had made in their five games against the Devils. The worst of all, however, was underestimating them.