The light went off in Devils coach Peter DeBoer's head right around mid-March. It was then that he realized his team was championship-worthy.
"With about 10 games left we had been spinning our wheels, hadn't been playing well, and we challenged the team to really get on a roll heading into the playoffs," DeBoer said during a media conference call Thursday. "History had shown that it was important that teams were playing well heading into the playoffs."
The Devils responded by winning six games in a row to close the regular season.
"That was the first signal to me that the team was engaged and wanted to do something special," DeBoer said. "Having said that, the Florida series was everything we can handle, plus some. I don't think anyone that watched us there would have predicted us to be here."
"Here" is one win away from the Stanley Cup Final, with Game 6 against the Rangers scheduled for Friday at Prudential Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
RANGERS VS. DEVILS
Devils on verge of Final with 5-3 win
By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer
The Rangers overcame a 3-0 deficit to tie the score early in the third period, but New Jersey's Ryan Carter scored the go-ahead goal with 4:24 left in regulation as the Devils beat New York 5-3 to take a 3-2 series lead and move within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. READ MORE ›
The Devils, though, don't get here without the confidence they gained at the end of the regular season and the belief they added after gutting out a tougher-than-expected seven-game series win against Florida and then rolling past the Flyers in just five games.
"We got tested as far as our character and everything (against Florida), and that's where we saw our systems are working and we're doing a lot of good things," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "Not that we didn't believe it, but when you work at it and see some results, you start feeling better about yourselves. That's maybe when we started believing we could play well against anybody."
Brodeur, though, admitted the Devils surprised themselves "to a certain extent."
It happened in the series against the Flyers, when New Jersey lost the first game but reeled off four straight impressive wins.
"We considered the Flyers to be one of the best teams in the League and we played some great hockey against them," Patrik Elias said. "We played five great games and that builds up the confidence. Even this series (against the Rangers), we feel like if we stick with the game plan that we have, play simple hockey and aggressive hockey, and everybody is on the same page, then we can be successful. That gives you the feeling and quiet confidence that you can win those hockey games."
Before the Devils could gain that feeling and quiet confidence, they had to answer to their coaching staff in March.
After winning four in a row from March 6-11, the Devils responded with only two 1-0 wins (one by way of a shootout) in their next seven games. They were shut out in Philadelphia, blasted twice by the Penguins, beaten 4-2 by the Rangers and lost in a shootout to Toronto.
But their season-closing six-game win streak sent them into the playoffs on a high.
"We definitely gained a lot of confidence to string some games together at the end of the season," Brodeur said, "but playoffs is a different animal."
The winning streak didn't do much for the Devils considering they lost two of their first three postseason games, and three of their first five.
"We had a tough time with Florida," Elias said. "They made it hard on us."
"They were a resilient team," Brodeur added. "They gave us as much as we could handle. Their power play was tough on us. They got themselves in games all the time because of that. I was really impressed with that team."
Travis Zajac scored the overtime winner in Game 6 to give the Devils hope, and then Adam Henrique scored the double-OT winner in Game 7 at Florida to send the Devils to the second round.
They've won seven times in 10 games since then.
"We were fortunate to go through (the Panthers)," Brodeur said. "It took guts and character. We're better as a team because of that."
DeBoer knew they were a better team at the end of the regular season because of how they responded to his challenge.
The stakes are just higher now.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl