By Jay Greenberg in New York
The New Jersey Devils, who finished fourth in the Atlantic Division, are seven wins from the Stanley Cup and still not pinching themselves because their defencemen have permission at long last to come down the wall.
To the foot soldiers, the cavalry has finally arrived.
"It's hard when your 'D' isn't allowed to pinch because you are playing three-on-five all night," said New Jersey forward Zach Parise Thursday. "It makes scoring too hard.
"Once our 'D' started to be allowed to do that it opened things up for everybody. They've done a great job the whole playoffs of keeping pucks alive and keeping cycles going.
"I mean, from a forward standpoint, it's kind of a relief to get those D-men involved. It just makes life a lot easier."
It could easily have been "c'est la vie" for the Devils in Game 7 double overtime against Florida but it wasn't. Now life is good because of the performance of a defence that had inspired nobody to pick New Jersey to get this far.
The tying and winning goals in the Devils' 3-2 series-tying win in Game 2 Wednesday night were generated by plays made by defenceman Bryce Salvador, from along the half-boards. Salvador did not score a goal all season.
"Maybe it's his contract year," joked Coach Peter DeBoer Thursday.
But more likely, it's self defence. Three of the four Ranger goals that enabled them to win two Game 7's this spring were scored by defencemen jumping up into the play.
Not one member of that Rangers defence scored more than 10 goals this season, but there is more critical math involved. When a defencemen shoots, it's one more forward at the net causing the screen that is needed to beat a playoff calibre goaltender.
Thus if there isn't that one gargantuan Chris Pronger-type defenceman on either of these teams controlling every shift, there are two armies of Bryce Salvadors and Marc Staals knowing when - and when not - to get up into the play. Such is the way it is going to play out until Bobby Orr comes out of retirement or the last screened goal puts one of these teams in the final.
The difference between the Devils in Game 1 and 2 was their control of the wall. They were so impressive that even John Tortorella's stonewall seemed to be dented. The Rangers' coach actually was conversant on his conference call Thursday, if not especially revealing.
"I'm not going to get into individual players," he said when inevitably asked about the third- period benching of Marian Gaborik. "Certainly in last night's game it wasn't one individual guy that we end on the wrong side of that.
However, Tortorella also said: "I think we're looking to get more consistent with our forecheck. But the second goal they scored at the end of the period to tie it up was really a big play in that game, and that's a defensive play."Slight irony
Actually, it was a defensive play not made by Gaborik along the wall against Salvador, and Ryan Carter's resultant deflection enabled the Devils to get out of their worst period of the game tied 2-2 on the way to 3-2. Their 'D' kept coming, a slight irony in that it was presumed this defence would have they sent them home by now.
The Devils haven't been great back there since Scott Niedermayer left and Scott Stevens retired. And they still won't be until Adam Larsson, the fourth overall pick last June who was benched for Game 2, becomes the star they hope.
This is why Lou Lamoriello put the pinch on Minnesota in February to get Marek Zidlicky for defenceman Kurtis Foster, minor leaguers Nick Palmieri, Stephane Veilleux, a second-round pick in 2012 and a conditional pick in 2013. Zidlicky not only has proven the final piece of a semifinal team, but unlike Salvador, is still under contract for next season.
"He's been invaluable, we wouldn't be here without him," said DeBoer. "Foster gave us good minutes, helped our power play and did some good things. The thing about Zidlicky is he's multi-dimensional, not just an offensive or a power-play guy.
"He plays in your top two, can play 25 minutes a game. He can play against top players in the league and defend and compete in the zone and also run your power play. There are only a handful of those guys in the league that can do that."
Watching Zidlicky drift to the middle to free Ilya Kovalchuk at the dot for a Devils' power-play goal in Game 2, helped us catch the coach's drift: Zidlicky is a space creator in a series the Rangers would prefer to play in a closet.
"A thing that can go under the radar is the fact that he's right-handed and we needed another right-handed shot," said Parise. "But just his skating ability and patience with the puck has really helped us keep plays alive.
"He makes a great outlet pass. That was a really good acquisition that gave us a new attack and dynamic we were somewhat lacking."
As proof, the Devils got out of the first round for the first time in five years.
"I've always believed in a pressure-type game and system," said DeBoer. "When we got to New Jersey we had been 30th the prior year in goals scored.
"I looked at the personnel and thought that [like] previous New Jersey teams that have had success, the strength of this group really is in our forwards.
"What is the best way to get them involved? Zach and some of the other players felt they were playing three-on-five. We could put a little more pressure on other teams."
From the last round, the Flyers could tell you the Devils have succeeded.Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg.
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