New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, of Russia, reacts after scoring a goal against Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, of Russia, in the third period of Game 5 of a second-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series, Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Philadelphia. New Jersey won 3-1 and won the series 4-1. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
NEWARK, N.J. . (AP)—A day after making the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2003, New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was in a good mood.
The long-time executive of a team that boasts 10 division titles and four conference championships was proud of his team and staff Wednesday, very proud. After missing the playoffs a year ago for the first time since 1996, New Jersey is back where many believe it belongs: Two rounds away from a fourth Stanley Cup.
It knocked off Florida in seven games in the opening round and then totally outplayed Philadelphia in the second round in five games, wrapping up the series with a 3-1 win Tuesday night.
The Devils are now awaiting the winner of the Capitals-Rangers series, which New York led, 3-2, prior to Game 6 in Washington on Wednesday night.
The players had the day off Wednesday after the win. But the driven Lamoriello—surprise, surprise—was working the day after New Jersey made hockey's Final Four for the first time since "Finding Nemo" was in theatres.
"We felt like we had a couple of teams in between that had the ability to do that and didn't get it done," Lamoriello said in a telephone interview. "That's the most important thing you always impress upon everyone—how difficult it is today to get here. With the parity, there are 30 teams competing to get here and this group today should feel real good about themselves and what they have accomplished."
In some ways, the Devils looked very much like their championships teams against the Flyers. They bottled Philadelphia in their own end with an aggressive forecheck and showed why they had the best regular-season penalty-killing unit in the league, giving up three goals in 19 attempts. New Jersey also had goals from 11 players in the series, all while goaltender Martin Brodeur came up big time and time again in a series in which he turned 40.
"There is no question this team has come together, but it has been together all year long," said Lamoriello, whose biggest off-season move was hiring Peter DeBoer as coach in July. "There has been an incredible chemistry."
The Devils have overcome problems in a season in which captain Zach Parise returned after missing most of the 2010-11 campaign with a major knee injury. Top centre Travis Zajac missed most of this season with an Achilles' tendon injury. And defenceman Henrik Tallinder has been sidelined since early January because of a blood clot in his left leg.
So, as expected, there were some occasional slumps here and there. But New Jersey closed strong, and finished with 102 points, seven behind the top-seeded Rangers.
"There was adversity at different times and I don't want to get into particulars but they stayed level at all times, were totally committed and worked as hard as any group I have seen," Lamoriello said. "I think this series epitomized that because of the commitment they made to each other. Everybody was focused and nobody worried about anything but winning."
After a shaky start to the post-season, in which it lost two of the first three games to Florida, and blew a 3-0 lead in Game 3, New Jersey has won six of the last seven, including three in overtime.
And beating the Flyers is a good omen. This is the third time the Devils have defeated Philadelphia in the playoffs, with the first two coming in championship seasons (1995 and 2000).
Another good sign? The Devils are winning without home-ice advantage. In 1995—the franchise's first title season—New Jersey went 16-4, winning all four series as the lower seed.
Lamoriello, who has quarterbacked the Devils since 1987, isn't looking too far ahead. He knows St. Louis and Nashville played very well in the opening round, and didn't last long in the second. Combined in Round 2, the Blues and Predators won one game.
"That's what playoffs are all about," he said. "You can't look left or right, you have to focus in. Every series is different. Every series is like a season within a season. You have to focus in on it that way. When one is done, you have to go to the next. You have to win 16 games, but you also have to win four series."
For many of the Devils, this will be their first trip to a conference final. Only Brodeur has played on all three of the franchise's Cup winners. Patrik Elias has played on two and Petr Sykora one, although he also won a Cup with the Penguins.
"It feels really good," Parise said. "It's a lot of fun, and even there's a few times throughout the series and the playoffs that we've given up the first goal and there's no panic on our bench and that's great to see.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence, but most importantly we're having fun doing it."
David Clarkson, a 30-goal scorer in the regular season, will also be playing in the third round for the first time. He snared the series winner Tuesday, blocking a clearing pass by Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, and hacking it into the net.
"We have a lot of leaders in this group," Clarkson said. "We never gave up and that's the type of style we have tried to play all season. It was never give up and keep working hard. It is a tribute to everyone in here and our coaching staff and the way they have coached us all season.
"It is definitely a big, big deal and we have to get ready for next round."