Devils are tough foe for Rangers in conference finals

Henrik Lundqvist celebrates after defeating the Washington Capitals Henrik Lundqvist celebrates after defeating the Washington Capitals with teammates Mike Rupp #71 and Anton Stralman #32 during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at Madison Square Garden. (May 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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The Devils are a testament to sameness, to the establishment of a style and sticking with it, year after year. That's how Lou Lamoriello built a post-1995 lockout dynasty, with three Stanley Cups and four Finals trips in nine seasons.

But the post-2005 lockout version of the Devils hadn't adapted well, winning just one playoff series (over the Rangers in 2006) in five seasons before missing the playoffs last season, the first time out of the tournament for the Devils since 1996.

So the tried-and-true Devils made some adjustments, and here they are, back in the Eastern Conference finals and facing their old friends from across the Hudson after the Rangers' 2-1 win over the Capitals in Game 7 of their conference semifinal series Saturday night.

The biggest change came in Lamoriello's hiring of Peter DeBoer last summer. Lamoriello, who has hired and fired coaches at will during his 25 years in charge of the Devils, tried to persuade Jacques Lemaire to stay on after taking over the team in the middle of 2010-11, but he returned to retirement.

DeBoer, a successful junior coach who had an unsuccessful three-year run with the Panthers, tried to change the Devils' counterattacking style into a more aggressive system, taking advantage of the high-end skill of some of the forwards. It was that relentless style that wore down the Flyers in a five-game series win last round.

"Our big weapon is the coaching staff," goalie Martin Brodeur said Tuesday after the Devils eliminated the Flyers, 3-1. "I think they prepare us; they make changes to our system better than a lot of the coaches that I had in the past. And I think we were well-prepared to do the things we need to do to be successful."

Brodeur is the main link through all of the Devils' success. Despite turning 40 a week ago, he's been enjoying a revival this postseason. Zach Parise, the captain and soon-to-be unrestricted free agent who appears to have a very slim chance of returning to the financially hamstrung Devils, has been his usual solid self, as have longtime Devils Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson.

Ilya Kovalchuk was a wild card coming into the postseason, with the team having won one playoff game in his two previous seasons. But Kovalchuk leads the Devils with 12 points despite missing a game against the Flyers with a back injury.

"For the first time in nine years, I'm not going to the World Championships, so it's fun," said Kovalchuk, who made two playoff appearances in his previous nine seasons with the Devils and Thrashers. "It all starts with winning. You can't be happy with yourself even if you score as many goals as you want. You try your best every night, but when the team is winning and everybody is doing well, it helps a lot."

The Devils have gotten key contributions from journeymen such as Dainius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky, as well as feel-good story Stephen Gionta, the 28-year-old wing who spent six seasons with the Devils' farm team before getting a crack this postseason.

Last season was an aberration in Lamoriello's grand plan, but the changes the Devils made have paid off. Despite that, the Devils' return to within one round of the Stanley Cup Finals -- their first conference finals trip since the last time they won it all in 2003 -- still is a bit of a surprise.

"I don't think there are too many people out there that expected us to be where we are right now," Parise said. "This is fun for everybody and we're having a good time, especially after the way things went last year. We're happy to be in the situation we're in. It's a good feeling, but again, we're only halfway there. We know it's only going to get harder from this point."

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