May 27, 2012

After defeating the Rangers in overtime, the New Jersey Devils are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2003. That year was also the last time the Devils won the holy grail.

Did the Rangers have a solid chance at defeating the Devils? Somewhere in between Game 5 and 6, they thought they had found a way to stop the Devils. The Devils were blocking more shots than the Rangers (which throughout the Rangers playoff run, they had blocked more shots). The Rangers started beating the Devils with their own forecheck strategy. They even figured out how to prevent the Devils from passing the puck up to themselves and winning the dump and chase over the defensemen.

They thought they had the Devils all figured out…or so they thought they did.

What they didn’t study enough of…the fourth line. Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier have been putting up big plays in this series. At 10:05 in the first period, Gionta came in hard on Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist denied him, but didn’t hold onto the puck and that left Carter to finish it to give the Devils the first goal of the game.

With Ruslan Fedotenko heading to the penalty box for tripping Carter, the Devils decided to enact a new kind of power play…the kind that makes you say, “Tic-Tac-Toe.” Why? Because that’s exactly what it was. The passes started from the top across the ice to an awaiting player. The puck gets passed from one player to the next and then…BOOM…the Devils score.

With Peter Harrold at the top, he passed the puck to the top of the faceoff circle to an awaiting Adam Henrique. Henrique then passed the puck to David Clarkson in the middle, who then passed it down to Dainius Zubrus to the left of the goal. Zubrus then passed the puck across to an unguarded Ilya Kovalchuk on the right of Lundqvist. Kovalchuk then took the feed from Zubrus and slapped it right in as Lundqvist was still trying to make the slide across towards the Russian sniper. Kovalchuk was too fast for him, and it gave the Devils a 2-0 lead at 13:56 into the first period.

The most unique thing about this power play, every single player on this power play unit had touched the puck right before the goal. This was probably the best power play the Devils have seen all year. It was as perfect as a coach could dream a power play would turn out.

In the second period, the Rangers started to come back, dominating the puck 2-1 over the Devils. Ruslan Fedotenko was the first to tally a goal for the Rangers at 9:47. A few minutes later, Dan Girardi’s slapshot was deflected off of Ryan Callahan, and the Rangers saw a tie game at 13:41.

With both teams trying to stave off the other, the third period went scoreless and Game Six headed into overtime.

It was the rookie, Henrique, that would tally the overtime winner at 1:03 to push the Devils into the Stanley Cup Finals. With this goal, Henrique joined the history books with Martin Gelinas (Calgary, 2004) in scoring two series winning overtime goals in the playoffs. There are only two players in the history of the NHL to do it. Henrique is the first rookie to do it.

With this win, the Devils eliminated the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, continuing the Winter Classic curse. This curse has found that the winner of the Winter Classic goes far into the playoffs, only to lose.

“It’s a pretty special feeling to win like that,” Clarkson said after the win.

Did Captain Zach Parise touch the Prince of Wales trophy? The team decided that it wouldn’t be a good idea, so he didn’t touch it. He waved the entire team over to take their photo together with the trophy…but no one touched it.

For Kovalchuk, this is a big historical moment in his life. For many years he’s always found himself overseas this time of year, playing in the World Championships. This year, he has an excuse on why this is his first World Championships that he’s missing. He’s still playing for the Stanley Cup.

“It means a lot,” Kovalchuk said of going to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. “It’s a great feeling. We feel good. Last year was tough, but this year was totally different. We played well all year long. We played good in the playoffs. First time was real tough, but I think we figured out our game and what it takes to win…now, we’re good.”

Throughout his entire career, his team was either eliminated in the quarterfinals or his team didn’t qualify. This is the first time in his entire career that he has gone to round two, the conference finals, and now the Stanley Cup finals against a team that thought they would be the one to snag him in free agency. To many, including Kovalchuk, that is pure irony that it would come to this at season end.

“We’re going to face a good team,” Kovalchuk said of the LA Kings. “It surprised a lot of people, but they deserve to be there as well. So it will be a good battle.

“It’s a little weird. Two teams where I was to choose from, we’re going to face in the Finals, but I’m pretty sure I made the right decision. I can’t wait to play those games.”

For Peter DeBoer and David Clarkson, they seem to do well together in the playoffs. The last cup they both lifted together was the Memorial Cup when Clarkson was playing for the Kitchener Rangers and DeBoer served as coach. For DeBoer to take the Devils this far in his first year as their coach, this proves everything right that Clarkson has been saying about his old coach.

After all, it was DeBoer that helped make Clarkson into an NHL worthy player while he was in his juniors…and to become an even better player this season by giving him more opportunities to shine.

“That’s a great, great feeling,” Clarkson said of the win. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my career. It’s fun and now we have to continue keeping on.

“I think as a kid, you always dream of playing in the NHL. You pretend you are in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals when you’re little. To be here and it coming true, it’s a pretty special feeling.”

The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Wednesday at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Game Two will also take place in Newark on Saturday.

About The Author

Michelle Kenneth has been with Inside Hockey since 2007 as the beat reporter for the New Jersey Devils. She is also part of the IH team covering the New York Rangers. Since 2007, she's covered the Stanley Cup Finals, NHL All-Stars, NHL Awards, Winter Classic, Stadium Series and the NHL in Europe. You can follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleKenneth and on her blog:

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