PHILADELPHIA – As the screams and shouts of joy echoed in the hallway outside the New Jersey Devils' dressing room Tuesday night, captain Zach Parise came out to be interviewed by NBC's Pierre McGuire.
The Devils had won, 3-1. They had beaten the Philadelphia Flyers four straight times and eliminated them in five games. One year after missing the playoffs for the first time in forever, they had returned to the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2003.
Parise was headed to the third round for the first time in his career. Yet he waited for a cameraman to arrive. Yet he waited for the crew to adjust the lighting.
"I'm missing the celebration, guys," he prodded a little.
The crew actually turned off the spotlight for a moment, before turning it back on and pointing it at the ceiling, illuminating Parise with only a reflected glow.
It was so Devils. This is a team that plays across the river from the biggest city in North America, the media capital of the world, yet is so often in the shadows despite its successes. This is a team that wasn't supposed to beat the Flyers, yet dominated them for significant stretches – outcoached them, outskated them, outworked them, outplayed them.
"I don't think a lot of people thought we could do that, and that's fine," Parise said later, sitting in the back corner of the dressing room, no trace of bitterness in his voice. "We believe in here. We're getting better as these playoffs are going. We like the way we're playing, and it's rewarding."
The temptation is to blame this all on the Flyers.
After an explosive, emotional, high-scoring series against the Pittsburgh Penguins – their cross-state rivals, the favorites to win the Stanley Cup – the Flyers seemed to have nothing left. They seemed flat. They seemed out of sync.
Their best players weren't at their best, including Claude Giroux, whom Flyers coach Peter Laviolette had anointed “the best player in the world” after he outshined Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Giroux had 14 points in six games against Pittsburgh; he had three points in four games against New Jersey and was suspended for Game 5 because of an illegal hit to Dainius Zubrus’ head in Game 4.
Even though goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov allowed a goofy goal Tuesday night – firing the puck off the shaft of David Clarkson's stick, watching it ricochet back into the net for the eventual winner – he was not the Achilles' heel. He wasn't great. He wasn’t worth the nine-year, $51 million contract he received to solve the Flyers' chronic goaltending woes. But he wasn't the reason they lost.
While the Flyers deserve the criticism, the Devils deserve the credit. They made the Flyers look bad. The scouting report on Philadelphia is simple: shaky goaltender, banged-up defense, potent forward corps. The Flyers like to forecheck. They like to push the pace. They like to agitate. In other words, they like to do what they did against the Penguins.
So the Devils didn't let them do it.
"Our guys were ready to play," Laviolette said. "It was a different series, a different style."
The Devils did the forechecking. They kept the puck in the Philadelphia zone, wearing down the Flyers' defense, making the Flyers' forwards expend their energy at the wrong end of the ice. They took away the walls, covering up the Flyers' escape routes, forcing the Flyers to miss pass after pass. The Devils gave up the first goal in each of the past four games, but they kept coming, kept coming, kept coming – kept winning battles and winning games. As Flyers winger Scott Hartnell said: "It seemed like they were a step forward the whole series."
"We know our game," said Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. "I think the guys play the system real well, and we keep on doing the same thing over and over. It was tough on the Flyers."
And when the Flyers tried to spark something by starting something after the whistle, the Devils stayed out of the scrums and stayed out of the penalty box. The Flyers couldn't get fired up. Their fans couldn't get fired up. They ended up with the opposite emotion.
"I think that frustrates them even more when we're not getting involved with it," Parise said, "and once you see that happening, then it's easy to stay out of it."
Kind of like an annoying little brother?
"Exactly," said Parise with a big smile.
The Devils could become even more annoying. They have veterans who have won the Cup before. They have leaders and role players and youngsters. Seven different Devils have scored a game-winning goal in these playoffs already. "You look at me," said sniper Patrik Elias. "I've got three goals. It's not like I'm lighting the lamp up." Everybody is contributing.
Everybody is buying in. Even Ilya Kovalchuk, who will never win a Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward, was spotted backchecking hard Tuesday night – diving to swipe the puck off an opponent's stick to short-circuit a shorthanded chance. Kovalchuk played Game 1 with a bad back, missed Game 2 and still had seven points in the series. He had a goal and an assist in Game 5 and looked like the best player on the ice.
"We obviously have some high-end skill guys with the Kovalchuks, the Parises, the Eliases," said coach Peter DeBoer. "But I really think the story of this team has been our depth and our ability to roll four lines and six defensemen, to get contributions from different people every night, and that's got to continue."
Up next will be the New York Rangers – the big brothers from across the river – or the Washington Capitals. It will be off-Broadway vs. Broadway, or Newark vs. the nation's capital. It will be a different series, a different style. Either way, it will be a battle against a shot-blocking team more comfortable in its own zone than the Flyers were.
But who's going to doubt the Devils now? Better get that spotlight ready.