The Devils' Road to the Stanley Cup Final
The star winger became a restricted free agent after the 2010-2011 season, which ended with the Devils missing the playoffs. Parise had missed most of the campaign season due to a knee injury, and the Devils had salary cap issues, which caused a tense, summer-long negotiation that finally ended with Parise agreeing to sign a one-year, $6 million dollar contract. He was named team captain and went on to lead the Devils back to the postseason, where he scored 14 points during the team's unexpected push to the Stanley Cup Final.
Following the retirement of legendary coach Jacques Lemaire after the 2010-11 season, GM Lou Lamoriello passed up opportunities to talk to established bench bosses such as Ken Hitchcock and Darryl Sutter and instead inked former Florida Panthers head coach Peter DeBoer on July 19. "I've known Pete and watched Pete coach for many years," Lamoriello said at DeBoer's introduction. "He's technically as sound as anyone." In his first season, the new coach led the Devils to a 48-28-6 record and 102 points, good for the fourth highest total in the Eastern Conference.
Under fire for underperforming during his first season after signing a 15-year, $100 million deal with the Devils in August 2010, Kovalchuk steadily transformed his game in 2011-12 to accommodate the Devils' defensive style and produced a 37-goal, 83-point regular season. He entered the Stanley Cup Final leading the NHL in postseason scoring, a Conn Smythe candidate for his multiple clutch performances, such as assisting on three of the Devils' four overtime game-winning goals.
Prior to the season, Lou Lamoriello signed free agent and former first- round pick Steve Bernier to a minor league AHL contract where he joined the forgotten brother of former Devils winger Brian Gionta: 28-year-old Stephen. On October 26, the Devils plucked Ryan Carter off waivers after he was dropped by the Florida Panthers. Little did the Devils' brass know that they had just acquired the final piece of a fourth line that would become a dominating force during the playoffs. When Jacob Josefson and Adam Larsson went down with injuries during the season, and Travis Zajac remained out with a bad Achilles tendon, Carter, Bernier and Gionta got their respective shots to play for the big club. By the end of the season, the trio had established itself as a unit that went on to combine for 19 points and a plus-16 rating in the first three rounds.
With Travis Zajac's return not yet on the horizon and Jacob Josefson going down with an injury in October of 2011, the Devils were without their top two centers early in the season. Rookie Adam Henrique, their third-round draft pick in 2010, was called up to the big club and went on to score 51 points en route to earning a Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) nomination. In the playoffs, Henrique became vital to the Devils' success, scoring two series-clinching goals, first in double overtime of Game 7 against Florida in the first round and in overtime of Game 6 against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.
On the evening of January 20, 2012, the Devils sent minor league defensemen Joe Sova and a fourth round draft pick to Carolina for valuable forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. During the playoffs, he would become absolutely clutch, scoring the Game 3 overtime winner against Philadelphia in the second round and assisting on Adam Henrique's series-clinching Game 6 overtime goal against the Rangers.
Just before the NHL trade deadline in late February, Lou Lamoriello dealt defenseman Kurtis Foster, forwards Stephane Veilleux and Nick Palmieri, a second-round draft pick and a conditional third-rounder to Minnesota for veteran blueliner Marek Zidlicky. At first, the Devils faithful were skeptical of the move, as Zidlicky had been a malcontent and headache for the Wild, but the critics ate their words as, along with partner Bryce Salvador, he led the offensive charge of New Jersey's blue line during the postseason, scoring eight points and registering a plus-1 rating through the first three rounds.
After qualifying as the sixth seed in the East, the Devils fell behind the upstart Florida Panthers two games to one. Florida's quick transition offense and lethal power play proved problematic against what looked like a tired squad showing its age on the back end. The explosive Panthers offense led by Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss had many observers wondering whether 40-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur had what it took for another playoff run. He proved he did by shutting out Florida in Game 4. Though the Devils seemed exhausted, youth revived their Stanley Cup run as Travis Zajac scored the winner in Game 6 and Rookie-of-the -Year candidate Adam Henrique put the Panthers away in dramatic fashion with 16:13 remaining in the second overtime of Game 7.
After squeaking by the pesky Panthers, the Devils got on a roll against the the heavily-favored Flyers, who'd come off a wild six-game series against the Cup-favorite Penguins. After dropping Game 1 in Philadelphia in OT, it was announced that sniper Ilya Kovalchuk had a herniated disc in his lower back and would miss a minimum of one game. Despite their 1-0 hole and injury setback, the Devils rose in Game 2 with a boost from rookie defenseman Adam Larsson. Playing in his first ever playoff game, Larsson scored his first postseason goal as the Devils earned the road split and seized home ice advantage. Kovalchuk returned for Game 3, producing a goal and assisting on two more including Alexei Ponikarovsky's OT winner. Refusing to take the frustrated Flyers' invitations to scrap, the disciplined Devils went on to win the next two contests and take the series in five games.
This much-anticipated battle between the Devils and archrival New York was laden with comparisons to the legendary 1994 Eastern final in which the Mark Messier-led Rangers shocked New Jersey by taking the series in seven dramatic games after being in a 3-2 hole. (Martin Brodeur was the only player on either team who actually played in that series.) Through four games, the adversaries battled to a 2-2 tie, the Rangers propelled by Henrik Lundqvist's two shutouts, the Devils predominantly by their electric fourth line. In Game 5, the Rangers battled back from an early 3-0 deficit to tie the game at 3 in the third period. But a Kovalchuk forecheck, a Gionta pass, and a Ryan Carter tap-in stole the game, 4-3. The Devils exorcised the demons by finishing off the Blueshirts in overtime of Game 6.