For the first time since 2003, the New Jersey Devils are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tonight, the New Jersey Devils went into Philadelphia, gave up the first goal to the Philadelphia Flyers, responded with an equalizer, tacked on a goal, increased their lead, and went on defend the Flyers from coming close to getting back into the game. The Devils won tonight's game 3-1 and they have eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers from the 2012 NHL playoffs by winning four games to their one.
I honestly did not expect this to happen way back in late September or early October as the season began. I honestly did not expect this to happen before this series began. I predicted the Flyers to win this series. I wasn't the only one. But a funny thing happened in Game 2: the Devils found and implemented a gameplan that Peter Laviolette and the Flyers just couldn't answer at evens. The Devils forechecked hard in a 2-1-2 set-up to a lot of success in that game, in Game 3, and in Game 4. Those games were held closer due to the play of Ilya Bryzgalov and special teams; but the Devils were the better team in 5-on-5 and they eventually came out winners. The Flyers forwards struggled and eventually underachived. The Flyers defensemen just got worked over and over. Bryzgalov did what he could, but even he was prone to some errors.
Tonight, the Flyers looked their best since Game 1 (and the second period of Game 3). They came out with hustle, they came out hitting, and their offense, well, attacked early on. Overall, the Devils were actually held to only leading 30-28 in shots. That's not bad; but it's a far cry from shot differentials around 20. Yet, the Flyers' aggressiveness worked against them over time. The Devils got tighter in their own end after Maxime Talbot scored on a scramble in front of the net; and they started finding holes in the neutral zone. That opened up rushes for the Devils, most notably a myriad of two-on-ones. The Devils got away from a two-man forecheck, particularly late in the game, but they found success to force a few turnovers and create a few opportunities. The swarming was more apparent in the neutral zone, where the Devils just prevented numerous Flyers breakouts from becoming anything of note.
By the sum of all that, one would think the Devils had some great chances to beat Bryzgalov. They did have them - but they didn't score on those. However, they have luck to thank for two of their three goals. Bryce Salvador fired a wrist shot from the point that ended up in the net thanks to a deflection by Wayne Simmonds. Minutes later, Kimmo Timonen passed the puck back to Bryzgalov to play the puck. The goaltender delayed as David Clarkson rushed him; he fires it at Clarkson; and it bounces off him and into the net. A horrible mistake for Philadelphia was a great gift for New Jersey. Yes, that's how the Devils went up 2-1 in the first period.
As for the third goal, well, it was the perfect exclamation point on this series. In Game 5, the Flyers played, well, Typical Flyer Hockey. Big, mean, and mad. Zac Rinaldo was activated to replace the suspended Claude Giroux and he was out there throwing pain bombs left and right. Some legal, most bad. Several other Flyers followed suit, and often times, they went too far. Stephen Walkom and Eric Furlatt let a lot go and they could've been tougher. The Devils also could have done a lot more with their power plays. On their first three, they generated two shots on net and allowed three by Philly. That's a waste. Yet, on the fourth one - an obvious holding call by James van Reimsdyk - the Devils only needed one. Dainius Zubrus won the faceoff, Adam Henrique passed it back, and Ilya Kovalchuk was ready to unload. Yes, the same Ilya Kovalchuk who was clearly hurt and ineffective in Game 1. Yes, the same Ilya Kovalchuk who didn't play in Game 2. Yes, the same Ilya Kovalchuk who's been hearing about how he can't get it done in the playoffs or doesn't have the burst or doesn't have heart like someone else for so, so long. Kovalchuk wound up and fired an absolutely perfect shot underneath the crossbar. Forget Bryzgalov, I doubt Dominik Hasek could have stopped that shot. It's 3-1 NJ, the Devils had a reason to breathe easier, the Flyers crowd was reduced to murmurs, and it's the last goal scored in this playoff series.
Credit the Philadelphia Flyers to a degree: they came out harder in this game than they did in their last three. This was a competitive game. They had their moments to get back into this game. They only needed one bounce and Martin Brodeur nearly gave it to them in the second period. But it just wasn't to be in that scary moment. It wasn't enough overall unless you're counting dirty play. Brodeur made better saves. The defense had better coverage. The neutral zone play was better set-up to disrupt the Flyers. The offense did better in getting space as evident by several two-on-ones and forcing Bryzgalov to come up big. Peter DeBoer out-coached Peter Laviolette. The Devils were better in Game 5. The Devils were the better team in this series. I didn't expect it, I didn't predict it, and I'm happy to be wrong. The Devils are moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
For an opposition's point of view, please visit (and don't troll) Broad Street Hockey. For further thoughts on this game, please continue on after the jump.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Game Highlights: A fortunate deflection, an awful giveaway by Bryzgalov, and one of the sweetest shots you'll ever see from Ilya Kovalchuk. See it all in this highlight video from NHL.com:
The Series Winning Goal: I feel sort of bad for Ilya Bryzgalov. (Yeah, sort-of, he is on the Flyers.) He gave up some soft goals to keep the Devils in a Game 1 they had no right in going to OT. Since then, he's been mostly solid. OK, Game 3 wasn't a good game for Bryzgalov; but he did what he could. He did his best in Games 2 and 4. Yet, he's going to remembered as the guy who fired a puck into a oncoming forechecker and it bounced past him and in for a goal. And not just any goal, but the game winning goal in an elimination game. Yes, he stopped plenty of two-on-ones and other Devils shots from dangerous spots. Yes, the deflection by Simmonds was a bad break. Yes, he had no chance on Kovalchuk's slap shot. Yes, he made a ridiculous amount of saves to keep the Flyers in games in this series despite the skaters' performance.
That's all wiped away because he gave up the one of the worst possible goals in a win-or-go-golfing game. And I can't say I blame the critics on this one. Sorry, man, it's the way of the world, if not the universe.
P.S. to the Last Section: Good job, David Clarkson. He figured on providing some pressure and he got rewarded big-time. That was an awful play by Bryzgalov, but be proud on being in the spot to that made the bounce happen.
When You Put a Goon in to Replace a Top Forward: Let's be real here. The Flyers could have put in any other forward not named Jody Shelley to replace Giroux for a game. They chose Zac Rinaldo for a reason. His role was to go out there and hit. I get that in a way. It's not like Rinaldo can do anything else. Yet, he crossed the line several times. He definitely had more than two strides on several of his hits, like his big hit on Anton Volchenkov. He definitely wasn't making a hit on a player with the puck on some of those. But the refs wanted to let the players play. Even Walkom and Furlatt couldn't ignore him when he went knee on knee on Zubrus in the second period. Seriously, they gave him two for interference. They could have given him much more since he was just running around trying to hurt people under the guise of energy.
Thankfully, Zubrus continued to play in this game and the Devils weren't goaded into a dirty response. Rinaldo was benched in the third period. In the 8:43 he played, he had two attempts on net (one blocked, one missed), and finished at -5 in Corsi. I wonder what would have happened if the Flyers put in an actual NHL player instead.
Damage: You never know about injuries in the playoffs; but it was obvious to me that Marek Zidlicky was more than just shaken up tonight. Wayne Simmonds had him in the corner and just crushed him head-first into the glass. Zidlicky went down and stayed down for a bit. He skated off the ice under his own power, but he did not return. In a way, that makes the Devils' clamping down on Philadelphia in the second half of the game more impressive as they did it with five defensemen.
Zidlicky has been great in this postseason and I'm really hoping he was held out as a precautionary measure. He was on his way of having another great game (seriously, +13 Corsi in 10:39 in even strength play) before Simmonds crushed him. Of course, Simmonds got no penalty on the play. When I said the refs let a lot go, they really did let a lot go.
The Stars: Kovalchuk certainly stood out with his goal. It turned out to be insurance; but playing up 3-1 in the third period is a lot easier than 2-1. He had a good game. Possession wasn't so hot like in Game 4; he ended even in Corsi and Fenwick. That giveaway to Matt Read in his own end wasn't good in the first period; though the breakdown in coverage actually led to the Flyers' lone goal. Still, Kovalchuk played like we would expect from him. Four shots on net out of eleven attempts. He also hit the post on a shot early in the second period, so consider it twelve. Yeah, I think he's good to go.
Elias actually turned out to have a strong game. Perhaps the best from all the Devils tonight. He mostly went up against the line of Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek, and Brayden Schenn at evens and came out +11 in Corsi. Elias may have passed up some shots in the first period, but he ended up putting three on net out of nine attempts. Elias usually doesn't take a lot of attempts. When he does, it suggests he's getting into prime attacking areas and making an effort to make the most of it. Like Kovalchuk, he too hit the post on a play where he forced a turnover on a forecheck, drove to the net, and just fired a one-timer from a Zach Parise feed off the pipe. On top of that, Elias wasn't destroyed at faceoffs: he went 10-for-21. While he didn't get a point, I thought Elias did very well tonight.
Zach Parise had a quiet game, which was a bit strange given what Elias was doing. I didn't often hear his name called; and he wasn't a dominant force on the forecheck like in Game 4. He got more involved as the play went on, though. After a shotless first period, he got two in the second period - including the non-Kovalchuk shot on the power play. Parise put up three in the third, including a strong attempt on a two-on-one late that could have sealed it earlier. In terms of possession, Parise had an OK game at +5 Corsi.
Overall, the Devils got positive contributions out of their top three forwards and it helped them get tonight's result.
Salvadorian Offensive Machine: Bryce Salvador scored his first goal of the 2012 playoffs on a goaltender. He got helped out by Simmonds; but that puts him at two goals and four assists in this postseason. What's more was that wasn't his only shot. He had one other one that got on Bryzgalov, while two other attempts were blocked away. I don't expect it to continue, but I'm very glad that Salvador has contributed. He actually has an outside chance of matching his season production (9 points) in the next round.
Of course, Salvador is here for his defense. Tonight, there could be no complaints. He kept his actions mostly clean, he wasn't beaten often, and he was generally composed with the puck. Salvador put up a +9 in Corsi, he was excellent on the penalty kill, and performed very well in the 23:43 ice time he played tonight. When Zidlicky went down, I was a little concerned that Salvador could be exploited without playing with his usual partner. Salvador did quite fine with Volchenkov and Adam Larsson. As with the rest of the defense, I can only hope he goes from strength to strength in the next round.
Four on Five Superiority: The Devils helped themselves out tonight with a lot of discipline. They didn't get too involved with Flyers after the whistle and they didn't go out looking for blood after the ugly hits on Volchenkov (first period), Zidlicky (second period), or Zubrus (second period). Adam Larsson took the only minor penalty of the night, as he interfered with Matt Read. I can't complain about a team's discipline with only one call against them.
Either way, the Devils really made sure the Flyers wouldn't get a sniff of an opportunity on their power play. They allowed no shots on net. None. The Devils actually did get a shorthanded shot on net; but nothing was allowed. The Flyers hurt themselves with some bad decisions; they sorely missed Giroux in this situation. The Devils were just all over them even down a man anyway. It was the sort of penalty killing effort we've seen all season from New Jersey. It's safe to say that the Florida series was a bit of an aberration and a bit unlucky for the PK. In this series, the Devils did much better on the kill and tonight was a fine performance. Thankfully, it was only for two minutes.
Five on Five Superiority: Perhaps the Flyers also sorely missed Giroux in five-on-five play. While he was getting dominated in Game 4, the Flyers could have used their most talented forward to keep attacks going or make them more dangerous. While Philly successfully kept the shot count close at 30-28 and even closer at 26-25 at evens; attempts favored New Jersey yet again. As a team, the Devils' Fenwick finished at +9 and their Corsi at +7. The third period caused a drop from +10 and +14, respectively; that means the Devils had more blocks in the third period. That was the Flyers' attempt at getting desperate: only out-shooting the Devils 10-7, giving up several two-on-ones (including one with Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta), and seeing most of that 7 attempt differential end up off the bodies of Devils players. The Devils were the better team in 5-on-5 in each of the last four games; a surprising result considering the two were pretty close to each other this season.
Brodeur Had Some Moose Moments: I can't fault Martin Brodeur for the goal against. He actually made a successful desperate save on Talbot's first shot; the second attempt was amid a scrum. It happens. What I can fault him for was his stickhandling tonight. Normally, Brodeur is the standard when it comes to playing the puck. However, he struggled early on with his clearances and chips from behind the net. Some of them ended up into a crashing Flyer forechecker. One or two went right onto the stick of an attacking Flyer. He had one awful giveaway that was a post away from being a 2-2 game in the second period. Seriously, Brodeur had some Moose moments. He was more aware of his surroundings in the third period and was more effective. However, he gave Devils fans around the world a scare.
As for the rest of his performance, I have no complaints. Brodeur's glove denied plenty of Flyers' shots, most notably on Eric Wellwood's shorthanded attempt in the second period. He moved from post to post pretty well. He saw mostly everything and got a good stop on them. There weren't too many (any?) big rebounds. He even made a big blocker stop to knock away an arcing puck in the first period that could have caused trouble. Brodeur's only flaw was in playing the puck tonight, and he's normally very good at that. I think he'll be OK there.
Draws: The Devils were actually the more successful team on faceoffs tonight. As a team, they went 33-for-60, with Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique each winning more than 60% of their draws. I don't know how much faceoffs are really worth, but it's nice to see that they didn't even get wrecked in this category tonight.
I Learned Something: Zubrus actually had an empty net goal taken away from him. His shot from the neutral zone was on target, but the problem was that Kovalchuk was still in the offensive zone coming back from his forecheck. That ruled the play as offside and not a goal. I did not know that. Now I do. Sorry, Z.
Other Shooters: Petr Sykora and Stephen Gionta each had three shots on net. I'm surprised a bit at both getting that many, particularly Gionta since he spent more time in his own end (-4 Corsi) than Sykora (0 Corsi).
The Best Rookie in the Series: Adam Henrique picked up two primary assists tonight, marking it four for the series. While he only got one shot on net and finished even at Corsi; the assists were welcomed. He impressively kept a puck on-side as Alexei Ponikarovsky was that the blueline and flung a great pass to Salvador at the opposite side. His pass to Kovalchuk wasn't as good, but he did win that puck and gave it to a man who could do something with it.
Let's Put His Face on a Milk Carton: I don't think I noticed Jaromir Jagr all series. Did he play? Is he OK?
One Final Thought: Celebrate, Devils fans, the team's going to the Eastern Conference Finals. If you're not happy, then, well, I don't know what to tell you. I do know that we shouldn't start looking past the next round. But we can worry about that when the other series is decided. Until then, I'm going to eat crow.
Now that you've read my take, I want to know your opinion about tonight's win and the playoff series overall. Are you still amazed that the series winning goal was a serious gaffe by Bryzgalov? How much better did you feel when Kovalchuk scored on that amazing shot in the third period? What did you think of the Devils' performance in this game? What did you like about it? What didn't you like about it? What do you think the Devils need to improve upon to get ready for the Eastern Conference Finals regardless of their next opponent? How happy/surprised are you that the team has it made it this far in the playoffs? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's 3-1 win and the Flyers series as a whole in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you all for reading.