By Steve Silverman
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It was the most unpredictable run of all.

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No, not the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. That run appeared to come from out of nowhere, but when Los Angeles solidified its offense by adding Jeff Carter prior to the trade deadline, all the pieces were in place. The Kings had to go about the business of making the playoffs after a regular season in which they barely scored enough goals. But once they had that position clinched, they played ferocious hockey and won their first Stanley Cup championship in team history.

The Devils appeared to be the “other” guys throughout the playoffs. They were pushed to the brink by the Florida Panthers in the first round and looked to be cannon fodder when they faced Philadelphia in the second round. After taking a jab to the face in the opening game, the Devils beat up the bullies and eliminated them in five. The Devils are almost always in the Rangers’ shadow and New York appeared to be the better team going into the series. The Devils would have none of it and sent the Rangers to the golf course after six games.

The Kings came out with more steam in the Stanley Cup finals, and by the time the Devils joined the battle they were down three games to none. Note to team: It’s best to start playing in Game 1 and not wait until you are at the point of elimination. When you wait that long, any mistake may be enough to beat you.

The Devils found that out about 10 minutes into the game when Steve Bernier made a whopper of a mistake. He drove Rob Scuderi head first into the boards and that move left Scuderi dazed and bloody. The resulting 5-minute major penalty proved to be fatal. Bernier and Peter DeBoer were not happy with the call, but it was most certainly justified.

Throughout the majority of the playoffs, the Kings had sputtered on the power play. Apparently, that’s what Stanley Cup champions do during their march to the title – remember the Bruins’ failed power play during last year’s title run – but they came out of their malaise in Game 6. Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Trevor Lewis all put the puck past Marty Brodeur and that made a Hollywood celebration imminent.

Give credit to the Kings for not only recognizing their opportunity but doing something about it. Brown realized that if the Kings did not score during their 5-minute power play, there would be a significant momentum shift towards the Devils that might prove to be the difference. That first goal came when former Flyer Mike Richards sent the puck to Drew Doughty, who waited patiently for Brown to race towards the net. Doughty fired a shot/pass that Brown was able to deflect right through Brodeur for the opening goal of the game.

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The second goal was another decisive move by Brown, who had time and space as he moved between the faceoff circles. As he looked at the goal, he saw Carter near the right post and he fired his shot. It deflected off the blade of Carter’s stick for a 2-0 lead and when Trevor Lewis swept in a puck that was sitting on the goalline, it was basically all over.

As unexpected as the Devils’ run to the Final was, there’s a good chance that it will be difficult to repeat. Brodeur has given indications that he will return in 2012-13, but he has to make a serious decision about how much longer he wants to play. Brodeur, 40, has played 21 seasons and may be the best goalie to ever play the game. However, despite a strong playoff run, he is no longer at the top of his game.

The Devils have plenty of free-agent concerns. Zach Parise, Bryce Salvador and Ryan Carter join Brodeur as unrestricted free agents. Parise is one of the best players in the game and he simply cannot get away if the Devils are going to remain an elite NHL team. He scores 30-plus goals every year he is healthy and he does all the little things that help teams win. He will be in high demand during the offseason.

The Devils may not have the assets to keep their key players around. If that’s the case, the 2012 playoffs may represent the end of the franchise’s long run as an elite team.

That would be a sad development for one of the best work-ethic teams in sports.

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, 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).

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Devils fans, what was your initial reaction to the Bernier penalty? Be heard in the comments below…