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Devils Take a Flyer on the Eastern Conference Finals




They said it couldn't be done.

That is, 99-and-44/100ths percent of hockey geniuses figured that the Devils’ chances of ousting Philadelphia from the second playoff round was about as likely as tolls being eliminated on the New Jersey Turnpike, George Washington Bridge and both the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.

So, what have we here?

The Flyers are free to go fishing, hunting or movie-going while Lou Lamoriello's Cinderella Devils have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final to face either the beloved Rangers or the down-the-tracks Capitals.

And it all happened with an improbable four-games-to-one series triumph, cemented by a 3-1 win on Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Even more astonishingly, coach Peter DeBoer's club was scored upon first in every game yet rebounded in the final four out of five contests.

Once again, the Flyers jumped into a quick lead, but eventually became their own worst enemy with foolish penalties -- a Philadelphia habit -- and careless goaltending; or does that sound redundant?

For the astonishing Devils, the unlikely became commonplace. Players such as defenseman Bryce Salvador, who didn't score a single goal over 82 games, suddenly turned into a goal machine while the usual suspects -- David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk -- illuminated turn-the-game-around red lights.

The suddenly new-found scoring machine, Salvador, tied the game in the first period with a long shot, immediately followed by a unique Clarkson counter. Two periods later, Kovalchuk gift-wrapped the series with a power-play cushion in the finale.

To sum up the Devils' series advantage in one word, it is HUSTLE. They endlessly outskated Philadelphia, leaving Flyers in the dust over and over again while Martin Brodeur was a better goalie than Ilya Bryzgalov at the other end.

"The key was our forechecking," said captain Zach Parise. "We made it tough for them to get the puck out of their zone."

When the Flyers did penetrate into New Jersey ice, Brodeur was overly active, beating Philly skaters to the rubber and then passing to his mates.

"Marty played great again," added Parise. "When we had a breakdown, he bailed us out. Let's not forget that our defensemen let him see the puck. In the end, though, our best defense was having the puck. We made it pretty tough on their guys."

Playing without the suspended Claude Giroux, the Flyers had to compensate with a hard effort and that they did right after the opening faceoff.

Hitting was the order of the night in the first period. First, Brayden Schenn was torpedoed by Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov, but a few minutes later Philly superpest Zach Rinaldo returned the favor to the Devils’ backliner who required help getting off the ice, but returned later in the period.

Meanwhile, the Devils scrupulously avoided Philly-invited scrums and followed DeBoer's game plan.

"It was a total team effort," asserted an enthused Kovalchuk who never in his career has advanced so far in the playoffs. "We played as a five-man unit everywhere."

Nonetheless, time was required for the Devils to reach high gear while Flyers aggression paid dividends early in the contest. Maxime Talbot cashed in off a net mouth scramble when Brodeur allowed a rebound in his crease. Schenn and Dan Briere got assists on the play.

Despite the early setback, DeBoer knew that his skaters would not be daunted.

"We recognized what we had to do," the coach revealed. "We got saves when we needed to. The fact we were able to rotate four lines and six defensemen was a help.  Our team game is what made us successful. That was a very good team we beat. I'm proud of how we turned the other cheek; how hard we competed."

The compete level was evident immediately after Talbot's goal. New Jersey responded on Salvador's long shot that inadvertently was deflected by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds past an unsuspecting Bryzhgalov. Adam Henrique and Kovalchuk got assists on the play that originally was launched by a Brodeur outlet pass.

Minutes later, Bryzgalov misplayed a back pass by defenseman Kimmo Timonen that was meant for the Flyers’ stopper to play out of danger. Instead, the mistake-prone goalie fired it in the direction of the oncoming Clarkson. Bryzgalov's clearing attempt ricocheted off the shaft of Clarkson's stick and over the goal line. That was the killer goal for the Flyers both arithmetically and psychologically, although no one could be sure then.

Firewagon hockey continued right up to the first-period buzzer with excellent chances just barely missed at both ends.

By outhitting the visitors, the Flyers had hopes of getting back into the game as the middle frame began.

Kovalchuk hit the crossbar behind Bryzgalov early in the second period. Philadelphia got its first power play when Adam Larsson went off for interference, but the Devils effectively negated the Flyers’ advantage.

Brodeur almost cost his club a goal by misplaying a puck behind his net. It dribbled into the crease but was cleared before a Flyer could deposit the freebie. Meanwhile, tight-checking wasn't even an afterthought as teams exchanged wild rushes up and down the pond.

Philly assumed the offensive causing several close calls around Brodeur';s crease. On one play Marty just barely affected a clear that nearly resulted in the Flyers’ tying goal, but the Devils' ace got to it just in time.

The next near-thing was Patrik Elias hitting the post in his 150th career playoff game. Next, the aggressive Simmonds rammed Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky into the end boards stunning the Devil after which Rinaldo felled Dainius Zubrus with a cheap shot and took a kneeing penalty.

A couple of Devils shots went awry before Eric Wellwood nearly was sprung on a breakaway, which barely was stifled by Zidlicky. Another Devils PP became NG -- as in No Good. What coach DeBoer was hoping for -- among other things -- was for his club to escape the second period with the lead and it did -- but just barely.

Another Philly penalty -- to Scott Hartnell -- for high-sticking nearly produced a Flyers goal on a semi-breakaway after a careless back-pass by Parise. The period ended with a Flyers attack nullified when Jaromir Jagr's cross-ice pass failed to find a teammate.

One goal and one period away from elimination, the Flyers had to renew their determined play in the third to save their season. This much was certain, they never quit.   

Philly pressed from the outset, conquering Devils ice, forcing offensive zone draws. The Flyers pounded shots at Brodeur, forcing New Jersey into icing infractions. But James van Riemsdyk took an absurdly unnecessary holding penalty at 4:56 and that virtually ruined any chance for the home club to recover. Kovalchuk saw to that by immediately blasting one off the pipe giving the visitors a two-goal lead. It was Kovy's second of the series. Henrique and Zubrus got the assists.

Now, it was up to Brodeur and his checking mates to dissolve the desperate Philadelphia assaults. They repelled each attack even after Philly coach Peter Laviolette pulled Bryzgalov for an extra skater.

What next for the exuberant Garden State skaters? Well, for one thing the possibility of a Devils-Rangers series looms large.

"This much is certain," concluded DeBoer, "and that is it gets tougher from here."

True enough, but their performance through two rounds proves that this New Jersey sextet should no longer be taken lightly.

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