Just like the 98% of analysts that picked the Flyers to win this series, I'll eat crow here. Before the series and especially after Game 1, I thought the Flyers were the better team. I did think we had a chance to win the series...if we stole Game 1 while the Flyers were rusty and then turned home-ice into a fortress, winning 3, 4 and 6. However, the Devils turned this series on its ear dominating Games 2 and 4, and getting a crucial Game 3 OT win despite being the victim of some tough late-game calls. And with Claude Giroux suspended for his cheap shot on Danius Zubrus late in the second period of Game 4, the Devils had a golden opportunity to finish off the Flyers in their house.
It was an opportunity that didn't go to waste, though the Devils again conceded an early goal even that doesn't seem to matter to this team. After all, the Devils had won the prior three games of the series when being scored on first, and would do so again after some late first period puckluck got the Devils the lead. From there, the game became only a matter of whether the Devils would maintain their discipline long enough to watch the Flyers self-destruct. And that's exactly what happened as the Flyers took the final three minor penalties of the game, with the third one proving costly after an Ilya Kovalchuk rocket found its way past Ilya Bryzgalov five minutes into the third (and just four seconds into the power play) for a critical insurance goal. Kovalchuk's goal would be the last in a series where the Devils stunningly outscored the Flyers 15-7 in the final four games.
Although I wasn't sure if the Devils would finish it off last night, my main concern wasn't about the Flyers play, but about whether they would turn the game into a goonfest, especially with chief goon Zac Rinaldo replacing Giroux in the lineup. Ironically, it was the Devils who began hitting when Anton Volchenkov leveled Brayden Schenn early, then Rinaldo got almost instant payback nearly thumping Volchenkov into next week. For once, it was a clean but hard hit from the normally dirty enforcer and one that made me shudder. I thought it could be a Scott Stevens-like whomp that turned around the game, if not the series. For a while it did, and the Flyers would (as usual) get the first goal when Max Talbot scored off a netmouth scramble at 7:18.
Showing their resiliency yet again, the Devils didn't wait long to answer. It took just two minutes and nine seconds for a seeing-eye Bryce Salvador shot that deflected off Wayne Simmonds and by Bryzgalov to make the Flyers' lead dissapear. Adam Henrique and Kovalchuk would get the assists on Salvador's second goal of the postseason (both in Philly). If Salvador's goal was surprising, what happened next at 12:45 would be shocking. A back pass during a line change went back to Bryzgalov who had wide open ice - and David Clarkson charging toward his left. Incomprehensibly, Bryzgalov tried to sneak the puck through Clarkson and instead wound up hitting his skate and watched in horror as the puck deflected by him for a shock own goal, also Clarkson's second of the series and playoffs.
From there, the Flyers started to show more frustration, taking silly penalties and making other borderline and cheap hits that weren't called. I was getting worried someone wouldn't get up from one of those, as Volchenkov, Zubrus and Marek Zidlicky all went down at one point or another, and the animals that call themselves Flyer fans booed when each got up. Zubrus was again felled by a cheap shot, this time by Rinaldo who went knee-on-knee but was merely called for a two-minute minor. Just like the last game with the Giroux hit however, Zubie took a licking and kept on ticking. Zidlicky however, would eventually have to leave the game with either a concussion or a wrist injury suffered when he skidded toward the boards and Simmonds finished a check against a defenseless player. I'm sure 'upper body' was the official designation, but whatever it is hopefully it won't be a factor in the next round.
As each player went down, the urgency to finish this off tonight and not rely on the red wall of sound to save us in Game 6 ratcheted up. About the only good thing in the second period was that twenty more minutes ran off the clock with no change on the Flyers' end of the scoreboard. Our scariest moment came of our own doing, as Martin Brodeur again nearly got caught in no-man's land playing a puck and left the net vacated. However, the Flyers somehow couldn't take advantage, firing one off the post. Perhaps that was a sign right there that it would be our night, considering Bryzgalov's boo-boo was costly but this one wasn't. We had our chances but hit a couple of posts, and Bryzgalov continued a strong series stopping the puck, more than his stats (and gaffe last night) would suggest.
However, after a shaky start to the third period, a penalty on James Van Riemsdyk for holding proved decisive, after Henrique won a faceoff onto the stick of Zubrus, who found an open Kovalchuk. And the rest as they say, was history as Kovy fired a rocket home for his fifth goal of the playoffs. In the final fifteen minutes, the Devils put on a clinic in how to protect a lead. Compare and contrast the Devils' play against the Panthers from in front with their play in this series with a lead, it's literally like watching two different teams! Fortunately the final fifteen minutes went by without incident (coach Pete DeBoer's mandate on not engaging the Flyers after the whistle proving sage advice), and the Devils' improbable victory was complete. Sixth-seeded New Jersey joined eighth-seed LA and a 96-point Phoenix team out West in what has to already be the most unlikely final four in NHL history.
Of course, the Devils will now have their eyes glued to the remaining second-round series. Two straight Caps wins on tonight and Saturday would stunningly give the Devils home-ice throughout the remainder of the playoffs as they would start the Eastern Conference Finals at the Rock sometime early next week, not to mention complete a Cinderella final four. However, one more Ranger win and it'll be the best of times or the worst of times depending on your point of view. If I were a neutral fan (or even a non-sth) I'd definitely want to see Devils-Rangers, and that series would likely be nip and tuck, just like the two teams' six games during the regular season. As an sth though, I'm not going to lie, I'm not looking forward to the Ranger fan invasion at the Rock - even if the Ranger fans aren't on the subhuman level like Flyer fans. Especially after finally developing a home-ice advantage in our building during this year's playoffs. It's going to be a challenge for our sales team to be able to sell tickets to Devil fans, and Devil fans themselves need to step up and not flip tickets for a profit.
Whoever winds up waiting for us, the Devils have already succeeded beyond outside expectations. Ironically, our win last night resulted in the loss of two draft picks over the next two years since this now becomes without any doubt the year we'll give up our first-rounder to fulfill the Kovy salary cap penalty with a pick at 28, 29 or 30 in the draft. Plus, getting to the Eastern Conference Finals fulfilled our condition in sending the Wild an additional 2013 third-rounder in the Zidlicky trade. It's hard to imagine any other scenario over being happy to lose two high draft picks, but this is definitely one.