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First Round Fun

With the first round of the NHL playoffs surging forward, let's take a look back at some of the more interesting, intense, and electrifying first round matchups that the New Jersey Devils have played in their history.

Two of those men helped make first round magic in 2012
Two of those men helped make first round magic in 2012
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

For those of you who are watching, the first round of the NHL playoffs so far have been quite intense.  Many games have been close, some have gone to overtime, and crowds have been insane.  I thought that the White Out game in Winnipeg would be the craziest—and the arena was certainly going nuts—but there have been other places to rival that, especially over on Long Island.  It has been fun watching, even without our beloved New Jersey Devils being involved (some would say it is even more fun, as watching your favorite team in the playoffs is more nerve-wracking than fun).

To perhaps inject a little Devils action back into our lives, however, I thought that I would go back and look at some first round matchups that New Jersey has played in.  Some were easy, some were disasters, and others were pure nail biters.  While I don't really plan on reliving the disasters (2008, 2010), let's check out some of the better and more exciting first round matches that the Devils have been involved in and managed to win.

Note: Most statistical information about the games and series will come from Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted.

Devils (4) vs. New York Islanders (1), 1988 (stats)

This was the first playoff series that the New Jersey Devils would take part in, and it is the only series they have played against the Isles.  The Islanders were now definitively past their dynasty teams of the early ‘80s, but they were still dangerous.  In fact, they had made the postseason every year since their cup runs, and had made it to the finals against Edmonton in ‘84.  They had players such as Pat LaFontaine, Bryan Trottier, Brent Sutter, Denis Potvin and others who were highly successful skaters.  This would not be an easy test for the playoff beginners from Jersey.

The series would open at the Coliseum, and the Isles would take a 4-3 overtime victory.  The Devils, however, would steal home ice advantage by winning game two out on the island by a score of 3-2, in a game where John MacLean would score a goal and Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey would allow 3 goals on only 16 shots against.

Game three would shift to Brendan Byrne Arena, where the Devils would blank NY 3-0 to take a lead in the series.  The Isles would come back in game four with a 5-4 overtime win, their second overtime win of the series.  Sean Burke would give up the overtime goal over 14 minutes into the overtime period, after having already saved 33 shots during the game.

Thankfully, the Devils would not allow another game to reach overtime.  Game 5 would be theirs by a score of 4-2, and game 6 would see the Devils win the series after putting up 6 goals on Hrudey.  It would be the first playoff series win in franchise history, and it was surely one to remember for the fans in attendance at that game.  While the Devils would ultimately lose to Boston in the conference finals, that playoff run set New Jersey on a course for success that would eventually lead to 1995.

I found a video online of someone who mashed together a bunch of clips and highlights from the entire series.  The video is 43 minutes long, so it is not necessarily something you may want to watch from start to finish, but it is cool to scroll through to a couple points to see some of the action.

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Devils (3) vs. Buffalo Sabres (6), 1994 (stats)

In 1994, the Devils were entering the playoffs for the 7th time in the last 8 seasons.  The down years of the ‘80s were clearly behind them, and this team was heading toward something great.  Martin Brodeur won the Calder Trophy this season, and rightly so with a 27-11-8 record and a 2.40 GAA.  His first playoff matchup would be against an all-time great in Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres.

This would be an intense matchup, with no game being won by more than two goals.  It would also be pretty low scoring, which makes sense given the goaltenders involved.  Five of the seven games played would see the winning team score only 2 goals or less.  Buffalo would start the winning with a 2-0 shutout in New Jersey, but the Devils would respond by winning both games 2 and 3 by a score of 2-1.  Brodeur was particularly brilliant in game three, the first game of the series to be played in Buffalo, stopping 29 of 30 shots for a .967 save percentage.

Games 4 and 5 would be the aberrations of the series, each game seeing a final score of 5-3.  The home team would win each game, with Buffalo taking game 4 and the Devils winning game 5.  Game 6 was the real nail biter, however.  Playing up at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and with the Sabres on the brink of elimination, Hasek would be perfect through over 125 minutes of hockey.  Yes, the game would go to four overtimes until the first and only goal would be scored.  Hasek made 70 saves on 70 shots, while Brodeur allowed the 50th shot by Buffalo to hit twine.  Dave Hannan would be the hero for the Sabres, and a game 7 would need to take place back at Brendan Byrne.

Thankfully, that game would see a Devils onslaught.  The Devils would post 46 shots on Hasek, while Buffalo only attempted 18 on Brodeur.  Bruce Driver and Claude Lemieux would both light the lamps, with Lemieux's goal being particularly pretty.  The Devils would move on, winning the game 2-1 and the series 4-3.  Of course, NJ would lose in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual cup champs on a wraparound double overtime goal, but the cup win would finally come the following year.

Here is a much shorter highlight clip from this series, with some absolutely brilliant saves by both goaltenders:

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Devils (6) vs. Florida Panthers (3), 2012 (stats)

This series, of course, is much fresher on the minds of Devils fans, and one that was certainly a nail biter until the end.  Despite being the lower seed, the Devils were the better regular season team, going 48-28-6 and posting a positive 50.4% Fenwick.  However, thanks to the fact that the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers all produced more points in the standings, the Devils were relegated to the 6th seed.  Florida, meanwhile, squeaked past Washington to grab the Southeast Division, with a record of 38-26-18 and a 49.5% Fenwick.

The Devils would open the series with a win in Sunrise, peppering Jose Theodore with 38 shots in a 3-2 win, with all 3 goals coming in the first period.  Brodeur even got an assist on Dainius Zubrus' power play goal with just under 6 minutes to go in the first.  Florida would not allow the Devils to win two straight on the road, however, taking game two by a score of 4-2.  The Devils were down 3-0 through 2, but cut the deficit to one before Tomas Fleischmann scored an empty netter late to seal it.

The Devils would lose the first game in Newark 4-3, with Johan Hedberg coming into the game to replace Brodeur in the second period.  Alas, Hedberg would give up a PP goal to Brian Campbell, the eventual game winner.  The Devils would respond in game 4, Brodeur especially, as Jersey would blank the Panthers 4-0.  Despite this, Florida would take a commanding 3-2 series lead after shutting out the Devils 3-0 in game 5, which put the Devils on the brink of elimination.

Thankfully, the Devils would not lose again.  Both games 6 and 7 saw the Devils win in overtime, and both came in spectacular fashion.  In game 6 at the Rock, Travis Zajac would score almost 6 minutes into overtime, beating Scott Clemmensen under his left leg to force game 7.  The finale would be even more intense, reaching double OT.  This time, it would be Jose Theodore in net again, and it would be Adam Henrique acting as the hero.  John had the recap here, and a goal breakdown here.  It was a sweet goal, and an even sweeter way to win a playoff series.

Here are the highlights from the series:

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There were other thrilling first round matchups that the Devils have been a part of.  Some did not end so well, such as losing in game 7 to Carolina in 2009 at the Rock, or losing game 7 to Pittsburgh in 1999 at Continental Airlines Arena.  Other first round matchups were brilliant not because of the excellent competition but because of the clinic the Devils put on.  A great example of this would be the sweep of the Rangers in 2006, in which the Rangers only ever held a lead in a game one time.  Another time was in 1997, when the Devils crushed Montreal, winning the series in 5 games.  Montreal's only win came in triple overtime in game 4, while the Devils won every other game by at least two goals.

In the end, as a Devils fan, I remember some of these matchups quite fondly, but sadly, the Devils have won only one first round series since 2007.  Here's to hoping that more wins in the first round come to this organization, and come sooner rather than later!

Your Thoughts

Do you have any fond memories of a first round series that you would like to discuss?  As I certainly left out other quality first round matchups that the Devils have been involved in, are there any others that you would like to discuss?  Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.