The 2011-12 New Jersey Devils team went farther than any Devils team since the 2002-03 team that won it all. The Devils escaped the first round against the Florida Panthers in seven games with not just one, but two overtime wins on the brink of elimination. The Devils rebounded from a poor first game against the Philadelphia Flyers by outclassing them in the next four to win that series in five games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Devils defeated their most hated rivals, the New York Rangers in six games. The Devils lost the games they didn't score and won the others where they did score at least one goal. When Adam Henrique tapped in that loose puck in overtime of Game 6, he didn't just wipe away 1994, he ensured his team the right to play for the greatest trophy in all of sports, the Stanley Cup.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils had to take on the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings smashed Vancouver in five games, St. Louis in four games, and Phoenix in five games. As an eighth seed, the Kings knocked off the first, second, and third seeds in the Western Conference is such a way that it was pointless to point out their seeding. The Kings were playing great hockey, and so they were a great team in case the 14-2 record going into the finals wasn't enough evidence. Unfortunately, the Devils found out how great they could be. The Kings took the first three games and it looked like they would just add the Devils to their list of vanquished enemies. The Devils fought back to win Game 4 to deny the sweep and steal Game 5 to keep hope of an epic comeback alive. However, in Game 6, the Kings rallied early, scored three times on a five minute major, and never looked back in a 6-1 blowout to knock out the Devils.
It was a deep and eventful playoff run for the New Jersey Devils. Before we turn our full attention to free agency and/or the NHL Entry Draft, it's a good time as any to look back at how it all happened. After the jump, I'll summarize each of the four playoff series with links to each recap, a chart of stats from the series, and some general thoughts on each. Given how the Devils got as far as they did with multiple contributions, I don't think it's right to name a single Devils playoff MVP or Devil of the Playoffs. However, feel free to come up with your own suggestions as you read through this review of the 2012 Devils playoff run.
The First Round: Devils Defeat Florida in Seven, 4-3
The Game by Game Chart of Shots, Attempts, and Possession of the Series: This is a snapshot of the shots on goal, attempts on goal, and Devils' Corsi and Fenwick in each game of this series. The shots and attempts come from the event summaries at NHL.com. The Corsi and Fenwick comes from the Corsi charts of each game at Time On Ice and they are for 5-on-5, non-empty net situations. The game specific links for each are in that game's recap.
Thoughts in Retrospect: This series was difficult as it was happening and in retrospect. The Devils really only creamed the Panthers at evens in Games 2 and 6, and even then the Devils went 1-1. The Devils were superior in total Corsi and Fenwick and definitely in shooting attempts. However, the shots on goal didn't really line up with the advantage in attempts.
The Panthers really stayed in this series due to a combination of good luck, their secondary scoring (e.g. Sean Bergenheim) stepping up, getting quality goaltending at times, and their special teams. The Panthers' power play ripped through the Devils at times and it nearly ended the playoff run back in April. The Devils' discipline issues definitely played a role as the team took some really stupid and unnecessary penalties ranging from clearing a puck over the glass to shoving down a player after an icing call while up three goals in the game. This not only allowed the Panthers to hang around, but they took the series lead twice because of it. All this while keeping their top line quiet at even strength, too.
Between the three goal lead allowed in Game 3 and the shutout loss in the pivotal Game 5, it really was looking grim for the Devils. It speaks to the character of the team that they pulled out an overtime win Game 6, a game they dominated yet couldn't break away from the Panthers on the scoreboard. And then they did it again in Game 7, a more wide-open and offensive game where the Panthers came less-than-inches away of winning it all. I'm loathe to focus on heart, grit, and other such terms, but the Devils definitely had some of each in escaping Sunrise with a series win.
A Standout Devil: I was really impressed with Travis Zajac in this series. He was just getting into a groove in the lineup after returning from injury at the end of the season. Against Florida, we got to see how capable a healthy Zajac could be on the ice. With three goals, three assists, and significant minutes against significant competition, Zajac was quite good. While Adam Henrique will be most remembered from this series for his double-overtime winning goal, Zajac's overtime winner in Game 6 was just as important and his play throughout the series was solid as anyone could ask for.
The Second Round: Devils Defeat Philadelphia in Five, 4-1
The Game by Game Chart of Shots, Attempts, and Possession of the Series: And now, a chart.
Thoughts in Retrospect: This series had the odd trait that the team that scored first in each game lost. That means all the winners did it in comeback efforts. The first game against Philly was rough. The first period was good, but as time went on, the Flyers just kept picking apart the Devils. Ilya Kovalchuk was noticeably bad; the defense was just lost; and the offense died short of two mistakes by Ilya Bryzgalov conceding goals. Basically, the Devils failed to steal the first game. It was a bad first game and last one for the Devils in this series.
For Game 2, the controversial decision was made for Kovalchuk to be scratched for a game. The more crucial decisions were made tactically as the Devils began to get more aggressive on the forecheck with all four lines. The Flyers had little answer for it as the shots and attempts just ramped up. Bryzgalov tried really hard to keep the Flyers up 1-0 in that game, but it all fell apart in the third period when the break downs in coverage took place - like on Adam Larsson's equalizer. Kovalchuk returned in Game 3 and fit into the gameplan like it was no big deal. While the Flyers matched the Devils' goals in regulation, the possession was solidly in the Devils' favor and an ill-advised line change allowed Kovalchuk to spring Alexei Ponikarovsky into space that led to an overtime winning goal. In Game 4, the performance was more pronounced. Peter Laviolette couldn't stop the swarm, the Devils weren't letting up, and the Devils responded to a quick two goal deficit with four unanswered goals. Game 5 saw the Typical Flyers, but an epic blunder by Bryzgalov - who had otherwise done quite well to keep the Flyers in games - proved to be the difference maker and a blast by Kovalchuk put the icing on the proverbial cake.
Apologies for going over each game, but it was a delight to remember this series. The score was closer than the performances, as the Devils just wailed on the Flyers in four straight games. The chart says it all: the Devils significantly out-shot, out-attempted, and out-possessed the Flyers over the whole series. The Second Rate Rivals were second rate after Game 1. This was the series where Peter DeBoer proved he could adjust to formulate a winning gameplan and straight-up out-coached Laviolette out of the building. This was the series where Kovalchuk came out flying after being scratched for a game and contributed at least a point in every single game. This was the series where one started to think, "You know, this could be something special." This was a great series.
A Standout Devil: Marek Zidlicky shined in this series. OK, he had a hand in the two goals against in Game 4. However, he also had a hand in the first two Devils goals scored in that same game. Zidlicky was fantastic in terms of possession against the Flyers. He would only be on the ice for two even strength goals against, his net Corsi was +25, and his net Fenwick was +13. When he was on the ice, good things happened either in his own end or on offense, where he contributed a goal, two assists, and 11 shots. Unfortunately, he took a nasty hit from Wayne Simmonds in Game 5 that not only shortened his time in that game - he was otherwise doing great - but quite possibly affected his play for the worse in future rounds.
The Eastern Conference Finals: Devils Defeat New York in Six, 4-2
The Game by Game Chart of Shots, Attempts, and Possession of the Series: Again, your friend and mine, a chart.
Thoughts in Retrospect: I won't stop getting a kick out of the fact that the Devils only lost in shutouts. Henrik Lundqvist truly is an excellent goaltender, one of the best in the world. If only he got some more help in the other games.
Well, that's not entirely fair to the Rangers. They did out-shoot the Devils over the whole series by 7 shots and in three of the six games in this series. They even out-attempted the Devils in Game 5 and 6. However, I wouldn't take this chart to show that the Rangers figured out the Devils, who got their swarm on in Games 2 and 3, midway through the series. As the Devils decisively won Game 4, score effects helped the Rangers get close to the Devils in shots, attempts, and possession. The same happened in Game 5, only the Devils scored their three goals on their first five shots of the game. The Rangers certainly responded with a better effort in that one to tie it up, though the Devils took it late. The same thing happened in Game 6: early lead by the Devils, Rangers fight back to tie it up by taking over possession, and the Devils won it late - another Henrique overtime series-winner.
That said, the Devils did respond to the Rangers' heavily-hyped tactic of blocking a lot of shots. John Tortorella is a believer of stacking the slot with bodies, and the players sold out their limbs and torsos to get in front of pucks. It was a bit risky and strange considering the goalie behind them is rather good, but it worked. Yet, the blocks were only the story in Game 1. The Devils only struggled to get shots on net afterward in Game 5, a game where they got three goals really quickly and dealt with score effects just as quickly. In the other games, the attempts were there to make up for it.
In short, the Rangers put up a tougher fight thanks to a tougher goaltender and a team committed to their system. However, their system struggled like whoa when Michael Del Zotto was out there, it was proven that Lundqvist could be beaten, and the forecheck did find success, though not as plentiful as in the second round series. All of this led to a win over Our Hated Rivals and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. If nothing else, that is the big positive memory from this playoff run.
A Standout Devil: Let's run through a list, shall we? Kovalchuk was a positive possession player over the whole series, scored the first goal of the series on Lundqvist in Game 2, scored one of the prettiest power play goals I've seen in a while in Game 6, pinned Del Zotto perfectly on a forecheck that led to Stephen Gionta feeding Ryan Carter for the game winning goal in Game 5, had a hand in the series winning goal, put up 23 shots in six games, got at least a point in each win for a total of two goals and four assists, got two assists in the one game he was held shotless, and became the league leading scorer in the playoffs by the end of the series. Yeah, I'd say Kovalchuk was a standout player. It was important that he was after playing so hot through Games 3 through 5 in the Philly series.
The Stanley Cup Finals: Devils Defeated by Los Angeles in Six, 4-2
The Game by Game Chart of Shots, Attempts, and Possession of the Series: For the last time, a chart.
Thoughts in Retrospect: The above chart says a lot about how the Devils lost this series. Yes, Steve Bernier's boarding major hurt the Devils severly in Game 6, but over the whole series, the Devils were the inferior team at evens. For the first time in this post season, the Devils were not out-attempting their opposition over the whole series. From the first round to the Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils were +58, +58, +37, and -42 in each successive series. They were also not superior in total Corsi or Fenwick, as evidenced by their net negative values in both. The Devils went the entire playoffs with at least 45 shot attempts in all situations until this round, where they had three games with less than 40. It's hard enough to get shots past Jonathan Quick, it's massively more difficult to do so with so few attempts on net. Simply put, the Kings were the superior team in terms of shots, attempts, and possession right from the get-go. That never really changed except for Game 2 and it's the main reason why the Kings have the Cup and the Devils do not.
Those early games were close on the score thanks to some good (or bad) luck and great goaltending from Jonathan Quick and Martin Brodeur. Game 1 was sloppy, but L.A. did more than New Jersey and they earned it. The Devils were the better team in regulation, but they couldn't solve Quick for more than one goal. The Kings owned overtime and took that game. From that point on, the Devils' victories became more and more fractured. They had a good first period in Game 3, but lost the plot from there on out with horrible power plays and score effect dragging them up to their one notably high Fenwick and Corsi values. Games 4 and 5 were essentially stolen. The Devils weren't so bad in Game 4, but the Kings again had more puck control and the Devils needed two big third period goals. Game 5 was pretty much the Martin Brodeur show with another fortunate bounce from a Bryce Salvador shot - the second puck going off Slava Voynov and into the net of the series - held up as the game winner. I could understand the Kings' frustration after that one. They did so much right and still lost. However, the Kings pressed the Devils before the Bernier major in Game 6, took full advantage of that major with three power play goals, and never really stopped to make it a blowout loss. While they scored more goals, the attempts were about the game. Basically, imagine Game 5 with more lethal plays and one less gaffe by Quick.
If a team struggles to get attempts and get shots, then they're not likely going to score and win many games. That's the hard lesson from the Devils. They didn't move the puck well enough or get enough stops on the Kings to get possession to turn into attempts on Quick. As a result, Quick never allowed more than two goals in any game in this series. This put further pressure on the defense, which I can't say was great given how many attempts the Kings had in each game, as well as Brodeur.
The second hard lesson of this series was that their power play needed to be far more consistent. While their success rate wasn't so bad, the performances ranged from decent looking to abjectly terrible within this series. They got exactly one power play goal in the entire series and it never would have happened if Quick didn't erroneously put it behind the net for Parise to scoop up and slam into the net. Given that the Devils had more opportunities on the power play before Game 6, a PPG here or there could have changed everything.
A third hard lesson was that the depth matters. The Devils kept the other team's best players in their three series in the Eastern Conference relatively quiet at evens. Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Jaromir Jagr, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards did not kill the Devils despite regular season success and/or success earlier in the playoffs. That had some significance in how the Devils won each series. In this one, the Devils had it done to them as Zach Parise (one power play goal), Ilya Kovalchuk (one empty net goal), and Travis Zajac (two assists, one on Kovalchuk's empty netter). What made matters worse was that the guys behind them couldn't pick up the slack. As the low shot and attempt counts attest, they really didn't generate any consistent success in this series. The only other forwards to score were Carter on a deflection in Game 2, Patrik Elias scoring on a rebound in Game 5, and Henrique scoring the game winner in Game 5 and the lone goal in Game 6. That's only four scores - not nearly enough. The defense chipped in with two of their own, fortunate deflections off Voynov's body. When the big names are kept in check, the guys behind them need to rise. Not that the Kings' top guys were kept in check; the Devils had no answer whatsoever for Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Justin Williams. Even then the Kings got great support from the Jarrett Stoll lines and even a goal from the Colin Fraser unit. Depth matters.
The biggest one to take in is that it really is simple: the Kings were simply the better team. Their skaters limited the Devils chances quite well. Their defense played very well, especially Drew Doughty. Jonathan Quick proved to be better than Lundqvist. Their forwards were seemingly relentless for most of the series and heavily out-attempted the Devils. The Devils ran into the same buzzsaw that knocked off Vancouver, St. Louis, and Phoenix. If anything, we should be glad the Devils even won two games - something those three teams didn't even do, as well as something that hasn't happened in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1945.
A Standout Devil: Would the Devils even won two games against the Kings if it wasn't for Martin Brodeur? OK, his even strength save percentage dropped from 94.4% at the start of the series (this is known as awesome) to 93.9% by the end of Game 6 (this is known as, well, really, really good). Still, do the Devils even go into overtime in Game 1 or Game 2 without him? Do the Devils come away with wins in Games 4 and 5 if he wasn't standing on his head at times? No, he wasn't perfect; but he was by far the best performing Devil in a series where no New Jersey player was really all that consistently good.
Additional Playoff Thoughts
One of the most pleasant developments in this playoff run was the fourth line. The Devils actually put three hockey players on the fourth line and they contributed quite a bit. Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier, and Ryan Carter each put up seven points and at least 20 shots in this postseason. Like one would expect from a fourth line, they had plenty of shifts were they would get pinned back and one would wonder when they'll be able to get off. But then they also had some very good shifts where they actually generated legitimate energy with some offensive pressure, shots, and some goals. Carter got five (and two stood up as game winning goals: Game 1 against Florida, Game 5 against New York), Gionta got four, and Bernier got two. I really hope Lou and DeBoer understand that having a functional fourth line is a good thing and doesn't throw any goons on there in the next season.
The most surprising stat line has to come from Bryce Salvador. David Clarkson racking up nine assists comes close, but Salvador's numbers still boggle my mind to a degree. The defensive defenseman was a negative possession player in the Florida, New York, and Los Angeles series. He doesn't have much offensive skill at all. Yet, he not only got 30 shots on net (tied for eighth among all playoff defensemen) but also four goals and ten assists. That's right, Salvador scored four goals and got ten assists in the playoffs. Only Doughty had more points in the playoffs. And they weren't cheap points from Salvador, either. I couldn't tell you why or how, but I appreciated every one of them all the same. If only he was better in his own end, especially in the Kings series.
I'm admittedly a little confused on how to rate the performances of Patrik Elias and Zach Parise. Elias' production fell down, but he was shooting more, making more attempts, and doing relatively well against tough competition, especially in the first two series. Parise definitely made an effort as his 87 shots led the team by 17 and the league by 16, though it only yielded eight goals and seven assists. He was a positive possession player until later in the run. I suppose he could have used better luck for all of those shots. If only.
I'd have to say that I'm disappointed with the fall of Anton Volchenkov in the lineup. I think he settled his game down after getting torched so much in the Florida series. Still, he was a solid fixture on the third pairing and I know he can be better than that. At least, I think he can be better. I hope he can be better? Other disappointments that come to mind include Clarkson not taking so many shots and faceoffs in general - the Devils finished the playoffs with a league worst 47.2% win percentage.
Lastly, there's a lot of great memories out of this run. Kovalchuk finishing a power play goal so beautiful in Game 6 against the Rangers that it should be framed and presented as art. Every one of Adam Henrique's goals except for his last one were important goals. Ponikarovsky following up his shot in Game 3 against the Flyers. Zajac winning Game 6 to keep the Devils alive for one more game in the Florida series; as well as his one-timer after Parise posterized Del Zotto in Game 4 of the Rangers series. Martin Brodeur's scorpion-style save on Gaborik in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. all of this and so much more. It would have been great if it included the top trophy, but the Prince of Wales will just have to do. After all, the Kings were just the better team and the Devils couldn't overcome that.
That's my review of the 2012 playoffs for the New Jersey Devils. What did you think? Who stood out to you in each series? Who do you think was the Devils' best player in the playoffs? Who was the worst? What did you learn from this review? What was your favorite playoff moment? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' playoff run in the comments. Thank you for reading.