Smart hockey lifts New Jersey Devils past Philadelphia Flyers
History books will teach that the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils qualified for the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference final at 10:06 p.m. ET on the night of May, 8, 2012.
Truth is, the Devils became the third team to reach the NHL's final four at the 19:56 mark of the second period Sunday night.
It was in that infinitesimal moment that Flyers center Claude Giroux, whom his coach Peter Laviolette declared "the best player in the world" a mere fortnight prior, ended the Eastern Conference semifinal series for all intents and purposes with a nasty — and ultimately penalized and subsequently suspendable — shoulder to the head of Devils forward Dainius Zubrus.
That the Devils did not score on the man advantage is irrelevant. What is relevant was the overriding unspoken message that Giroux's shoulder sent:
The Flyers could not beat the Devils so they were relegated to beating them up.
The Devils reached the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2003 after eliminating the Flyers in Game 5 on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win at the Wells Fargo Center. Bryce Salvador, David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk scored for the Devils in the clinching game. Martin Brodeur made 27 saves.
''It was just sticking with the game plan and doing what it takes to be successful,'' Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. ''Marty made some saves when he needed to, and we held on.''
Unlike Pittsburgh, which was content to trade chances and punches with Philadelphia during their captivating all-Keystone State series in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Devils imposed their will on the Flyers.
Philadelphia scored 30 goals in the six games against Pittsburgh. The Flyers hit the back of the net just 11 times against New Jersey.
The Devils did not trap the neutral zone, as the franchise's history would dictate. Instead, the Devils forechecked and cycled — really, they played keep away — and challenged the Flyers to defend. They could not.
''The fact that we have four lines and roll six defensemen really helps,'' DeBoer said. ''It's a team game. We play that way, and guys really believe in what we're doing. But that's a good team we just beat over there, and we have a long way to go.''
What the Devils did not do was get involved in extra-curricular shenanigans. They literally laughed as the Flyers seethed and committed incomprehensible acts of immaturity.
''It seems forever for a lot of guys,'' Brodeur said. ''It's tough to do that. We're fortunate to have made it there so far.''
The goal is the same as it has always been: The Stanley Cup. Now the Devils are four wins away from qualifying for the fifth Cup final appearance in franchise history.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
You can follow Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman