By Steve Silverman
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They can no longer be ignored, brushed aside or considered as some kind of annoying afterthought.
A year after they finished out of the playoffs completely, the New Jersey Devils are one game away from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Devils engaged in a brutal war of attrition with the Florida Panthers in the first round and won Games 6 and 7 in overtime to survive. There was every reason to think that they would have nothing left in the tank as they engaged the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. The Flyers had ripped through the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and were flying high. Surely the Devils would be easily dispatched.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Devils have had plenty of gas left and after dropping a 4-3 decision in overtime in the first game of the series, the Devils have taken charge with three wins in a row. Clutch scoring from Dainus Zubrus in Game 4 was the difference in building a 3-1 edge, but rather than point at the player who potted the game-winning goal, it’s the Devils’ relentless forechecking that has caused the biggest problems for the Flyers in this series.
Since the first game, the Devils have dictated the pace and the Flyers have not had any answers. The turning point in the series came in Game 2. Though badly outplayed, the Flyers had a 1-0 lead going into the third period. It seemed like Ilya Bryzgalov was having one of those games where he simply would not allow anything to get by him and the Flyers would either win 1-0 or perhaps add an empty net goal and they would take a 2-0 lead with them in the drive up the Turnpike to Newark.
There would be none of that. The Devils turned up the intensity even higher in the third period and they fired in four goals. They simply played harder than the Flyers and skated faster. There has been no let up since that moment and the shocking part is that the Flyers have been so willing to sit back and take it.
They may be wearing orange and white uniforms, but these Flyers look nothing like the team that has been leaving bodies in their wake for decades. Where is the chip on the shoulder? Where is the anger? Where is the nasty play that has been this team’s signature since a slug like Dave Schultz left bible camp and gave this team its identity in the 1970s?
Even the late second period check that Claude Giroux delivered to Zubrus’s chin was not delivered with typical Flyers angst. Oh, it was intentional and it landed where Giroux wanted it to, but it was not overly forceful and Zubrus seemed fine after the encounter. That’s a good thing for the Devils and it indicates that the Flyers may be happy to let the season expire Tuesday. (Oh, by the way, Giroux may be suspended for the hit.)
After dropping a 4-2 decision in Game 4, Flyers forward Scott Hartnell acknowledged his team’s lack of pluck and said there has to be more urgency when the series goes back to Philadelphia. Flyers’ defenseman Kimmo Timonen was even more specific. He said the Devils are simply all over the Flyers and not allowing them any skating room. The Flyers appear to be very willing participants in this operation as there has been very little push back.
The inclination is to say that the Flyers are not doing enough and putting the onus on them. But that’s just part of the story. The Devils are playing great hockey and they may be writing the championship script that most New York area sports fans thought would come from the Rangers.
Marty Brodeur will always play a key role in anything the Devils do in the postseason, but head coach Peter DeBoer won’t let his team put the majority of the burden on their 40-year-old goalie. The Devils are doing everything well. They are playing solid positional defense, making quick and accurate passes and have taken advantage of the majority of scoring opportunities that have come their way. They are feeling it and they show no signs of slowing down.
Finishing off the Flyers in Philadelphia Tuesday is fraught with peril. The Flyers will probably have some kind of force at the start. They may even score the opening goal.
If they do, the Devils should start to breathe easier. The team that has scored the first goal of the game is 1-9 in all Flyers’ playoff games this year.
So if Hartnell or Danny Briere or one of the Flyers’ other mugs pots the opening goal, the Devils can start putting together their scouting reports for the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers or Capitals.
In pro sports, you are not supposed to look past your current opponent. But that only applies to the players and coaches.
What could be more delicious for area hockey fans than a repeat of the 1994 conference finals between the Devils and the Rangers?
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).