May 6, 2012; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils right wing Dainius Zubrus (8) scores an empty net goal while being tripped by Philadelphia Flyers center Danny Briere (48) during the third period in game four of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals at the Prudential Center. The Devils defeated the Flyers 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
It could have all come crashing down in the second period of Game 4 Sunday night.
Claude Giroux, upset that the referees failed to call a penalty on Martin Brodeur for playing the puck outside the trapezoid, flew into the New Jersey Devils defensive zone, slashing a defender as he made his argument. He complained to the referee, turned up the ice and zeroed in on Devils forward Dainius Zubrus, who had just finished sending a puck behind the Philadelphia Flyers net.
Bent over, Zubrus was in a vulnerable position. Giroux took full advantage, working to the inside of Zubrus and throwing his shoulder into the head of the Devils forward, sending him crashing to the ice.
Giroux would get a laughable two minute minor for head contact. (Afterward, he would receive a well deserved one-game suspension.) After the play was whistled dead, New Jersey could have went after Giroux, or any Flyer, and took a retaliatory penalty.
Instead, New Jersey skated to the bench, made a line change and carried a powerplay into the third period of a 3-2 win.
In a series where the Devils have thoroughly outplayed the Flyers, one aspect of their game shines through - the discipline to avoid post-whistle scrums and retaliatory penalties. Combined with the better forecheck and improved all-around game, it's helped New Jersey to a 3-1 series lead and gives them the advantage to close tonight's series at the Wells Fargo Center in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Philadelphia thrives off of being a pesky, chippy team. They consistently tow the line between fair and foul, and most of their players have a reputation for being somewhat "dirty." In their opening round win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, they used that effectively, drawing the Penguins into numerous skirmishes and frustrating some of their best players. It took the Penguins off their game, and Philadelphia won a decided mental edge.
The Devils avoided all of that. Before the series started, New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer told his team to play between the whistles, a strategy that has frustrated Philadelphia. The message hit home with every player.
"We've got to play between the whistles and control our emotions because that's where they're the best," Ilya Kovalchuk told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "After the whistles, they start pushing and shoving and that's how they create their energy. So, we've just got to stay away from that and just play the same way - forecheck good and play in their zone."
As simple as it sounds, it's not an easy thing to do.
"It's difficult," Brodeur told Gulitti. "Everybody has pride and nobody wants to be embarrassed by somebody doing just whatever they want, especially when they're not getting (penalties) called. It takes a lot of character for guys to be able to do that and then walk away, but that's the price to pay. If you're not willing to do that, we're not going to win."
As the series shifts back to Philadelphia tonight, the Devils will once again need to be on their best behavior. Game 5 will feature a raucous crowd backing a team with their backs against the wall, and everyone knows Philadelphia's strategy - drive the net, get a scrum going and look to draw a penalty.
If they want to close the series tonight, New Jersey will need to keep their cool. It's one of the finer points they continue to stress, even as they stand one game away from the first Eastern Conference Finals since 2003.
"We've talked about it every time we have meetings," Brodeur told Gulitti. "It's always the first point. We have to make sure we turn our cheek and play hard between the whistles and when it's over, it's over."