The New Jersey Devils are one victory from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in eight seasons.
In what has seemingly become a routine scenario for the Devils in the postseason this spring, a new hero catapulted into the spotlight on Sunday en route to a 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 of the conference semifinal round before 17,625 at Prudential Center.
The Devils have now received game-winning goals from seven different players in the postseason this year on the way to seven victories. On Sunday, it was Dainius Zubrus, who scored a pair of goals to support the 20-save effort provided by Martin Brodeur, who was celebrating his 40th birthday.
Still, the talk after the game was more about not taking their foot off the gas pedal as it was another comeback victory — the Devils trailed 2-0 before scoring the last four goals of the game.
“We know what we’re capable of when we play the right way and do the right things out there,” Devils captain Zach Parise said. “We can enjoy this for a little bit and then try to get that fourth one. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
There was also this reminder from Brodeur, who, per the Elias Sports Bureau, became the first goaltender in League history to appear in a postseason game both as a teenager and a 40-year-old.
“We realize that two out of the next three games are in their building,” Brodeur said. “We were in that position in 2000 — when the Flyers held a 3-1 lead — and we won Game 7. We’re not putting anything past them. They’ve come back in past series. We can’t worry about them.”
And still more from veteran forward Patrik Elias: “Listen, I’ve been in many of those [up 3-1]. You’ve got nothing until you win the fourth one.”
The Devils, who now hold a 3-1 lead in the series, will get their first opportunity to advance for the first time since 2003 on Tuesday when Game 5 is held at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Brodeur, the game’s second star, also notched an assist on Zubrus’ empty-net goal with just 44.4 seconds remaining in the game.
“I think the whole game; they worked harder, they won battles,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. “It looks like they want it more than us. It’s frustrating. Our whole season, we’ve been outworking every team, and now it’s the other way around. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Despite the odds, Flyers forward Scott Hartnell knows the Flyers will not go down easy.
“One thing I like about our group is we’re not going to give up,” Hartnell said. “We’re going to fight right through to the end. We’re going home. We’ll have a day to re-focus. It’s do or die, one game.”
Zubrus gave New Jersey a 3-2 edge despite the heroic effort by Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov in the second period. The veteran forward feathered a shot over the right arm of Bryzgalov in the slot after taking a pass from Adam Henrique from the right-wing corner at 17:47.
“I jumped up on rush and we were two-on-one,” Henrique said. “I was surprised Zubie was alone in front, and I tried to get it to him. He just buried it.”
If not for Bryzgalov in the second period, the Devils would have probably opened a huge margin. He made a great stop on Steve Bernier, who got two big whacks at the puck at the right post at the 8:42 mark. He stoned Bernier again off a tip in the crease before denying Parise’s rebound attempt with his left pad while sitting on the goal line at the 9:35 mark.
“[Bryz] was our best player, by far,” Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “We gotta be better. Hopefully next game he can play the same way and we can get better. If we can’t get better, the season is there. It’s frustrating, but we still alive. We’re really a better team than we’re playing right now.”
The Devils steamrolled the Flyers for most of the second, outshooting their Atlantic Division rivals, 16-5. It was reminiscent of the second period of Game 2 in Philadelphia when New Jersey outshot the Flyers, 12-2, en route to a 4-1 victory that would even the series, 1-1.
Not until the 12:51 mark in the second did Philadelphia finally register a shot on Brodeur on Brayden Schenn‘s attempt from the left side of the cage. The Flyers actually went 16:23 without recording a shot on goal, bridging the first and second periods. The Flyers were also victimized by 20 turnovers, as compared to only five by the Devils.
“I think it’s just the way we’re attacking and pressuring,” Parise said. “We’re doing a good job of making turnovers and we’re getting the puck out of our zone well, breaking out. When you’re doing that, you will find yourself with a little more space out there.”
An entertaining first period saw the teams combine for four goals. The Flyers gained the early advantage, however, on a power-play goal by Scott Hartnell at 11:50 and shorthanded goal by Giroux just 1:50 later to open a 2-0 lead.
The Devils, who outshot the Flyers in the opening period, 15-8, would rally to square the contest. Petr Sykora pulled the Devils within 2-1 at the 15:14 mark of the first period when he tipped home a shot at the left post past Bryzgalov. On the power play, Marek Zidlicky sends a cross-ice pass from the right point to the far post to set up Sykora.
The Devils would then pull even on Zidlicky’s first career playoff goal at the 18:09 mark. After pinching along the right-wing boards to maintain possession of the puck, Zidlicky found Ilya Kovalchuk, who lined a pass to Bryce Salvador at the left point. Salvador skated in and returned a pass to Zidlicky between the circles on a tip from eight feet past a helpless Bryzgalov.
“There was never any panic,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. “When we went down by two we stuck with the plan. We got back on the forecheck. One thing about our team, no lead is ever safe, whether we have it or not. There was a confidence we could get ourselves back in the game so long as we stayed out of the penalty box.”
Frustration seemed to get the best of Giroux late in the second, when he was whistled for an illegal check to the head of an unsuspecting Zubrus along the right-wing boards with 3.6 seconds left. Giroux cut in front of Zubrus before connecting with the side of Zubrus’ chin with his right shoulder pad. The 33-year-old Zubrus, a 15-season veteran, remained down for a few minutes before heading off the ice to be re-evaluated.
“I was trying to finish my hit,” Giroux said. “He leaned in and kind of tried to chip the puck in. I didn’t see the replay, so I don’t know. But I’m not a dirty player. I don’t want to hit guys in the head. I was just trying to finish my hit there.”