If they wish to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and in doing so eliminate the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils know they’re going to have to sharpen up.
There was simply too many wild momentum swings in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Florida Panthers, which required a double-overtime goal by rookie Adam Henrique, for the Devils’ liking. And they never got that out of their system, as they led the Panthers 2-0 after 40 minutes on Thursday night but gave the Panthers life when they allowed a pair of power-play goals in the third period.
“It’s a little disappointing because we talked about not going there and we still ended up there,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “We have to get better than that.
“(But) we’re a resilient group. We have blown enough leads this year to get used to that. It’s unfortunate, but we re-grouped.”
The Flyers will have gone a week without playing by the time the puck drops in Game 1 of Sunday's semifinal against the Devils. But there will be no feeling-out period at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. There’s an intense dislike between the clubs, one that perhaps was best illustrated during the regular season when Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk punched out Flyers rookie Brayden Schenn.
The Devils won’t be able to experience the same kind of penalty trouble they had against the Panthers and expect to get away with it. Though DeBoer mostly liked his team’s performance during five-on-five play, the Panthers scored nine power-play goals on 27 opportunities. Just one team was more lethal with a man advantage during the first round, and that just happened to be the Flyers, who scored 12 power-play goals on 23 chances against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Devils-Panthers series was hard-hitting, but usually without the post-whistle scrums and fights that occurred between the Flyers and Penguins. Whether that same kind of hatred repeats itself remains to be seen, but this much is true: The Devils' defencemen are going to find it a lot harder to play, especially when they’re retrieving pucks in the defensive zone. The Flyers will punish the Devils' blueliners, and if you’re not overly big like Peter Harrold or Marek Zidlicky, you’re going to spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder.
One can expect Devils forward David Clarkson, who at times wasn’t noticeable against the Panthers, to be in the middle of the action a little more frequently. Kovalchuk will have to be more interested than he was in the first round, when he was dominant at times and invisible at others.
If all of the Devils had the work ethic of captain Zach Parise, they might win the best-of-seven series in four games.
Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov gave the Devils fits during the regular but he remains someone whose confidence can be dented with a few quick goals.
Confidence has not been and will not be an issue for Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, who will turn 40 on May 6, the day that Game 4 is played.
But the Flyers have more offensive weapons than what the Panthers threw at the Devils. Claude Giroux leads the playoffs with 14 points after a superb regular season, and four other Flyers — Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek, Jaromir Jagr and Schenn — averaged at least a point a game versus the Penguins. Philly simply is a deeper club than Florida could hope to be.
There’s nothing mysterious about winning formulas in the playoffs. Your special teams have to be nearly perfect, especially when killing penalties, your best players have to be your best players and you need top-notch goaltending.
None of that changes for the Devils, who had one more victory than the Flyers in the regular season but finished a point behind the Flyers.
Nothing will come easy for the Devils in this series.
“We know we have a really tough opponent ahead of us,” Parise said.