After falling behind the Florida Panthers in the opening round 2-1 and again 3-2, the Devils were facing another early exit from the playoffs. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003, it had seven seasons and only two series victories one of the NHL's dominant franchises of the previous 10 years.
Then the Devils rallied to knock off the Panthers, and it turned out New Jersey was just getting started. Depth at forward and on defense emerged, as did the old Martin Brodeur. After years of playoff disappointment, not to mention the ignominy of missing the postseason a year ago, the Devils are back on the sport's grandest stage in the Stanley Cup Final.
It will be the fifth appearance in the Final for Brodeur and the Devils in the past 17 years, and a series win against the Los Angeles Kings would mean a fourth championship for New Jersey -- matching Detroit for the most in the past two decades.
Here's a game-by-game look at how the sixth-seeded Devils rose to the top of the Eastern Conference:
The Devils bombarded Florida goalie Jose Theodore in the first period and forged a 3-0 lead, but the Panthers, playing in their first playoff game since 2000, stabilized and scored twice in the second. Brodeur made 24 saves and the Devils held on for a 3-2 victory, but this wasn't the last of the team's problems after gaining a three-goal lead.
Stephen Weiss scored twice to help Florida to a 3-0 lead, and then it was New Jersey's turn to try and rally. Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk scored 74 seconds apart early in the third period, but that would be all and Florida's Tomas Fleischmann added an empty-net tally to seal a 4-2 victory for the Panthers.
For the third time in three games, someone took a 3-0 lead. This time, there was a comeback win. Zach Parise, Stephen Gionta and Patrik Elias scored in the first 6:16, but the Panthers answered with two of their own in the first period and two more in the second for a 4-3 win.
Brodeur was pulled in Game 3, but he responded by stopping all 26 shots in a 4-0 victory. The power play continued to excel, as Parise and Kovalchuk scored with the man advantage. Brodeur established a new NHL playoff standard in shutouts with the 24th of his career.
One game after Brodeur bounced back from a subpar performance, Florida goalie Jose Theodore did the same, stopping all 30 shots in a 3-0 win for the Panthers. Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall scored against Brodeur and Tomas Kopecky ensured the Devils would be pushed to the brink of elimination with an empty-netter in the final minute.
The Devils lost another lead, but Zajac scored 5:39 into overtime to give New Jersey a 3-2 triumph to force Game 7. Steve Bernier and Kovalchuk put New Jersey in front 2-0, but the Panthers had tied the game with 7:11 left in the second period. The Devils outshot the Panthers 42-16 and finally broke through on goaltender Scott Clemmensen.
Rookie Adam Henrique was the hero, scoring 3:47 into the second overtime as the Devils fended off the pesky Panthers. For the second straight game, the Devils scored the first two goals only to end up 2-2 after regulation. Henrique scored the first goal of the game and Gionta made it 2-0 before the Panthers scored twice in the third period. Brodeur stopped 43 shots and the Devils won a playoff series for the first time since 2007.
Parise had a goal and an assist, but Danny Briere scored twice for the Flyers, including the winner 4:36 into overtime in a 4-3 victory for Philadelphia. Briere had one goal disallowed earlier in the overtime session because it was kicked into the net, but there was no doubt the second time.
Philadelphia led 1-0 after two periods, but the Devils racked up four in the final 20 minutes to even the series. Adam Larsson and David Clarkson scored their first goals of the postseason before Zajac, who played only 15 games in the regular season, recorded his fifth before Bryce Salvador iced the contest with a shorthanded tally.
Briere helped the Flyers get to overtime with his third goal of the series, but Alexei Ponikarovsky scored 17:21 into overtime to help the Devils to a 4-3 win and a lead in the series. Ilya Kovalchuk had a goal and two assists, and the Devils were able to kill off two Philadelphia power plays during the overtime session. It was Ponikarovsky's fourth career playoff goal in 48 contests.
The Flyers scored twice in the first 13:40 of this contest, including a shorthanded tally by leading scorer Claude Giroux, but New Jersey responded with four straight goals in a 4-2 victory. Marek Zidlicky had a goal and an assist, and then Dainius Zubrus potted a pair, including the game winner near the end of the second period.
Again, the Flyers scored first and again, it didn't faze the Devils. Salvador scored a little more than two minutes after Max Talbot had put Philadelphia in front in the first period, and New Jersey went on to a 3-1 win to clinch the series. Kovalchuk assisted on the Salvador goal and added an insurance tally five minutes into the third on the power play. Clarkson was credited with the series-winning goal when goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov attempted to pass the puck out of danger but ended up putting it off Clarkson and into the net.
Dan Girardi scored 53 seconds into the third period and Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 21 shots he faced in a 3-0 victory for the Rangers. The Devils controlled the first 40 minutes, but were unable to breakthrough with a goal. In addition to Lundqvist's saves, the Rangers blocked 26 shots. Rookie Chris Kreider added an insurance goal and Artem Anisimov put one in the empty net as all three New York goals scorers ended up with two-point nights.
David Clarkson scored early in the third period and the Devils were able to shrug off a pair of power-play goals by the Rangers in a 3-2 victory to even the series. Kovalchuk had the lone goal of the first period, but the Rangers scored on back-to-back power-play chances in the second. Ryan Carter leveled the score late in the second before Clarkson's winner. Salvador had assists on both tallies.
In a script eerily similar to Game 1, Lundqvist kept the Rangers even for 40 minutes before the offense came through in a 3-0 victory. Lundqvist stopped 36 shots, while Girardi again collected the game-winner early in the final period. Kreider also added the second goal for the second straight win, while Ryan Callahan ended up with an empty-net marker. The Devils had six power plays, including three in the final period.
Zach Parise scored twice and assisted on another as the Devils evened the series with a 4-1 victory. Brodeur stopped 28 of 29 shots, and that didn't include the shove from Mike Rupp in the third period that set off a melee. Salvador had his third goal of the playoffs and added an assist.
Carter had the second goal of the game by New Jersey's fourth line to help the Devils take their first lead in the series with a 5-3 victory. Gionta opened the scoring and New Jersey charged to a 3-0 lead, but the Rangers came back with three in a row of their own before Carter's third of the postseason and an empty-netter from Parise.
This postseason has had a couple of themes -- the Devils have started fast before needing some late heroics. Also, if the series is on the line Henrique will answer the call. He scored 63 seconds into overtime to put the Devils into the Cup Final for the first time since 2003 and help the club gain some measure of revenge for losing to the rival Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Carter scored again, and Kovalchuk had a goal and an assist to grab the playoff scoring lead. Brodeur made 33 saves in his 199th career playoff start.