NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils' series-clinching win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers turned on a single unusual play in the first period when goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov went to play the puck.
Pressured by David Clarkson's forecheck, Bryzgalov quickly fired the puck and it hit directly off the Devils winger and into the Flyers net. The eventual series-winning goal shocked the partisan Philadelphia crowd, but Devils' coach Peter DeBoer wasn't surprised in the least.
"Clarky is a great story," DeBoer said. "I've said all along, in my history with him, he's always scored big goals at big times."
That history is a long one between the fifth-year forward and DeBoer, who in his first season behind the Devils bench has the team within four wins of the Stanley Cup Final.
Coach and player first became acquainted with one another with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. It was 10 years ago that an 18-year-old Clarkson was traded from the Belleville Bulls to a Kitchener team coached by the then-34-year-old DeBoer and featuring a wealth of future NHL stars, including Mike Richards, Derek Roy, and Gregory Campbell. Kitchener would win the Memorial Cup that season, with Richards, Roy, and Campbell all being selected to the tournament All-Star team.
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While the three star Kitchener forwards would all be selected within the first three rounds of the NHL Draft, Clarkson went undrafted, eventually signing with the Devils in 2005 after finishing his junior career with DeBoer and the Rangers. After spending two seasons in the AHL, Clarkson finally got his shot with New Jersey in the 2007-08 season, leading the club with 183 penalty minutes, more than double the team's next highest total. That same season, DeBoer closed out his junior coaching career in Kitchener with another Memorial Cup appearance.
For the next three seasons, Clarkson attempted to add a scoring touch to his game while DeBoer failed to make the playoffs in his first NHL stint as a coach behind the Florida Panthers bench. But the stars somehow aligned this past fall when DeBoer was hired to coach the Devils.
"It's a good feeling to have a coach like that, that you have a relationship with," Clarkson said. "I have tons of respect for him. He helped me get here [to the NHL] and it's been pretty special with him this year."
The results this season have defied expectations. Clarkson responded to DeBoer's tutelage with a career-high 30 goals, becoming one of only three players in the League this season, along with Scott Hartnell and Corey Perry, to record 30 goals and 100 penalty minutes. And in his first playoff appearance as an NHL coach, DeBoer has his Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003.
"He has definitely helped me a lot confidence-wise," Clarkson said. "Putting me out on the ice in certain situations and giving me those extra minutes. It definitely helped."
And DeBoer's confidence in Clarkson has paid major dividends for the Devils, as the series-clinching goal demonstrated Tuesday night.
"Playoffs, overtime, game-winners. He just has that knack [for scoring big goals]," DeBoer said. "He came through a couple of times in the series [against Philadelphia] with those kinds of goals."