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New Jersey Devils Eastern Conference Finals Preview: How They Got Here

The New Jersey Devils finally know their Eastern Conference opponent.

After wrapping up their Eastern Conference semifinals series over the Philadelphia Flyers on May 8, New Jersey had to wait for the New York Rangers to wrap up their series with the Washington Capitals. They did just that, defeating Washington, 2-1, last night at Madison Square Garden.

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The Hudson River rivals square off for a chance at the Stanley Cup. The last time they met in the conference finals was 1994, when Mark Messier made "The Guarantee" and a young Martin Brodeur was beat on by Stephane Matteau on a wraparound in double overtime to send New York to the Stanley Cup finals.

After missing the playoffs last year, New Jersey is in their first conference finals since 2003. Here's how they got there:

Regular Season

New Jersey entered this season with lower expectations than in year's past. The team missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons, and had yet another new coach behind the bench. During the season, the team surpassed expectations. Behind a healthy Zach Parise, in his first season as team captain, New Jersey went 48-28-6, clinching seventh in the Eastern Conference and finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division.

Eastern Conference Quartfinals

The Devils faced off against the Florida Panthers, who finished the season winning their first Southeast Division title. The third seed, the Panthers finished with eight fewer points than the Devils. They opened the series with a win, scoring three first period goals en-route to a 3-2 win. Florida responded to win the next two, overcoming a three-goal deficit in Game 3. New Jersey responded in Game 4, with Martin Brodeur posting a shutout. Jose Theodore answered right back in Game 5, shutting out the Devils and pushing New Jersey to the brink of elimination. The Devils would fight back, winning Game 6. In Game 7, the teams played into double overtime, where rookie Adam Henrique scored the most important goal of his young career:

Adam Henrique Double OT Goal 4/26/2012 Devils @ Panthers NHL Playoffs (via DevilsHQ)

That clinched the series, and moved New Jersey on to the second round for the first time since 2007.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Welcoming New Jersey to the second round was the Philadelphia Flyers, widely believed to be the Stanley Cup favorites. Philadelphia defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, frustrating Pittsburgh into taking retaliatory penalties and completely knocking them off their game. Nobody picked New Jersey to win, and many didn't expect the series to go more than five games.

Philadelphia won Game 1, defeating the Devils, 4-3, in overtime. That would be the last time the Flyers celebrated a win. New Jersey went on to win four straight games, dominating the rest of the series. The Devils stayed disciplined, frustrating the Flyers, who admitted they didn't think New Jersey would be a tough team. The series winning goal came from David Clarkson, who's forechecking on Ilya Bryzgalov led to a soft goal:

David Clarkson goal off Bryzgalov giveaway - Devils/Flyers - 5/8/2012 (via ramblin223)

The win put New Jersey into their first conference finals since 2003. That year, with Pat Burns at the helm, the Devils defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games before defeating the Anaheim Ducks for the championship.