The Florida Panthers-New Jersey Devils first round series was a physical, intense, ferocious example of playoff hockey. The series went seven games, entered into overtime the final two contests, and finished in a climatic double-overtime Devils victory – maybe the best hockey game any of us will ever see. And yet, in a full hard-fought series, nobody saw the Devils the way they look now.
Almost out of the blue, the New Jersey Devils have picked up their game and are beating the best teams in the league. After only barely beating a Panthers team that is not star-studded or deep in talent, they beat arguably the two best teams in the East – the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers.
A safe question to ask would be: how did that happen? What many Panther fans saw in that series didn’t seem to have any potential to grow into Stanley Cup final material. Martin Brodeur had off and on nights; the fourth-line scoring wasn’t supposed to continue; Ilya Kovalchuk did not achieve superstar levels in the series; the penalty kill was miserable; and perhaps most importantly the team couldn’t hold onto most of their leads. It’s also worth mentioning that the team could have been mentally fatigued after grinding it out against Florida for a full series. With the Flyers waiting in the wings, many people, including me, didn’t think the Devils could last longer than 6 games.
And then the Devils beat the high-flying Flyers in five games. It was shocking to me that the Flyers couldn’t put up much more of a fight than that. But maybe it made a little sense: the Flyers were not prepared for a team that could play defense after scoring in buckets against Pittsburgh, and Ilya Bryzgalov was not exactly on a hot streak in the series. The Flyers tried to do the same old “score more than you no matter what strategy”, but it would not work against a tough defensive-minded team like the Devils.
Though as impressive and total that victory was, it would get even better for the Devils. The real shocker came in the next round: the Devils went and beat arguably the NHL’s best team, the New York Rangers, in six games. Once again, the story was similar. The Devils played good defense, got scoring from depth players, and were solid in net. It seems so elemental, but it worked against a team like the Rangers that feasts on mistakes. In this case, however, the Devils would not make mistakes. They would keep playing smart hockey and refuse to give an opportunistic Rangers team anything to feed off of.
The Devils’ strategy was not radical at all for the entire playoffs, but it worked to a T. After a close, close series against the Panthers, the Devils simplified their game and would not be the team to make mistakes. I’m going to pick the Kings for the Cup Finals, but I’ve been proven wrong before.
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