Over the next month, SB Nation New York will take an in-depth look at the New Jersey Devils 2011-12 season, one that saw them defy expectations and end up on the losing end of a Stanley Cup championship run.
Even with the bitter taste of a Stanley Cup Finals loss in their mouths, the New Jersey Devils admitted this season an incredible ride.
"It is disappointing, but I think if you look at the big picture, we have to be really proud of what we accomplished not just in this series, but for the whole playoffs," goalie Martin Brodeur told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "We took down two of our biggest rivals – the Flyers and the Rangers – and we made this a series after losing the first three games and winning the next two. It’s definitely disappointing not to go all the way, but it’s a great season for the Devils…We came a long way from not making the playoffs last year to being able to challenge for a Stanley Cup."
Coming into the 2011-12 season, many experts picked New Jersey to finish outside the playoffs. Some picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, while others picked them to finish just outside of the top eight. The organization picked Pete DeBoer for their head coaching vacancy, a guy who never made it to the playoffs, and tried to find a way to continue the late season success from 2010-11.
New Jersey flipped the prediction upside down. With DeBoer at the helm, the Devils never lost more than four straight games. Tied for the eighth and final playoff spot at the All-Star break, they pulled away to finish the season with 102 points.
DeBoer instituted an aggressive offensive system, based largely on a smothering forecheck, that fit the team's style. It liberated players like Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, who thrived in the puck possession system. Rookies like Adam Henrique stepped up, playing significant minutes to help overcome various injuries. Five players hit the 20-goal mark, and four reached the 50-point plateau.
The team's "no-name defense" grew into a solid, pass-first squad. The addition of Marek Zidlicky gave them some much needed offensive production.
Playing in the toughest division in hockey, where three other rivals made the playoffs, gave them the sixth seed and a shot at the Florida Panthers. While the Devils struggled in the first round - and faced elimination twice - they overcame Florida to advance past the first round for the first time since 2007.
New Jersey, playing the underdog role, took care of the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers in the next two rounds, using a combined 11 of the possible 14 games. Both teams were heavy favorites, expected to make short work of the overachieving Devils.
Facing the juggernaut Los Angeles Kings, the Devils were behind the eight ball before they knew it. Down 3-0 in the series, New Jersey made it interesting, winning two straight games. But Steve Bernier's boarding penalty helped put the nail in the Devils coffin, finishing off a season in which the team defied expectations.
"I’m proud of our group" DeBoer told Gulitti. "You know, you put some men together and you play (106) games on the ice every day and I couldn’t be prouder of them as a group."
"No one expected us to be here," Parise told Gulitti. "No one expected us to get past the Flyers or the Rangers. We played hard. We all believed in each other and what we were trying to do. We worked hard for each other. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to."
Facing a summer with several decisions, including one on their team captain, New Jersey will need to make the necessary adjustments to replicate the success next year. Ilya Kovalchuk said the experience, while disheartening at the end, will make the team better.
"We won the conference. We have a lot of guys that have never been in this situation before. We learned a lot and we’ll do better next year," he told Gulitti.