The New Jersey Devils are heading back to the Stanley Cup Finals after finishing off the top-seeded New York Rangers with a 3-2 overtime victory Friday night at the Prudential Center.
Adam Henrique scored 63 seconds into overtime as the Devils claimed the 2012 Eastern Conference championship on a significant anniversary in the history of both franchises.
Eighteen years ago to the day, a fresh-faced Martin Brodeur found himself in a similar place, with his Devils holding a 3-2 lead over the Rangers in the East finals, and a chance to advance with a victory on home ice in Game 6.
On May 25, 1994, captain Mark Messier backed up his guarantee of a Rangers win by recording a third-period hat trick as New York rallied from a 2-0 deficit to force a decisive seventh game that ended when Stephane Matteau beat Brodeur on a wraparound in double-overtime.
Now 40, Brodeur, the lone player remaining from that memorable series, is reveling in a different outcome as New Jersey clinched its fifth trip to the Cup Finals with its Game 6 win.
"I think winning against [the Rangers] on the big stage, not just for me, but I think for the fans of New Jersey, the people that are supporting us and always taking a second seat to these guys for whatever reason, now they got to be pretty happy going to work and going to school and doing all their things that they do," Brodeur said.
The sixth-seeded Devils, after falling behind 2-1 in the series, captured the last three games to reach the NHL's championship round for the first time since winning their third title in 2003. They will meet Los Angeles, beginning Wednesday in Newark.
On the series-clinching goal, Henrique, one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, found himself in the right spot at the right time.
There was a mad scramble around the Rangers' net and the puck trickled through Henrik Lundqvist. Just before New York forward Brad Richards could push the puck back into his goalie, Henrique swept it across the goal line, setting off a celebration in the right corner with the rest of his teammates.
"That's the only way you're going to score on Lundqvist, you're not going to get a clean one; you're going to have to work for it around the net. And that's what we did," said New Jersey head coach Peter DeBoer.
When asked about the goal, Henrique replied, "It's a big one. It's one you dream about."
It was Henrique's third goal of the playoffs and first since scoring twice in Game 7 of the conference quarterfinals against Florida, including the winner in double-overtime.
Lundqvist summed up the loss by saying, "It's an empty feeling, a frustrating feeling, a disappointing feeling. (We) put in a lot of work to get here and obviously we wanted to get further."
The Devils went up 2-0 in the first period, with their fourth line playing a chief role.
Steve Bernier chipped the puck past New York defenseman Marc Staal, who was pinching in at the left point, and it resulted in an odd-man rush for New Jersey.
Bernier pushed the puck ahead to Stephen Gionta and he was denied by Lundqvist, but Ryan Carter chipped home the rebound at the 10:05 mark. Carter scored the winning goal late in Game 5 on Wednesday after New Jersey blew a three-goal lead.
A little over two minutes later, Carter was tripped up by Rangers forward Ruslan Fedotenko and the Devils converted on the subsequent power play. New Jersey moved the puck quickly and efficiently around the offensive zone, with Ilya Kovalchuk capping the nifty passing sequence by one-timing Dainius Zubrus' feed at the left side at 13:56.
The Devils have now outscored opponents 23-9 in first periods this postseason. But as superior as their play has been in the opening 20 minutes, they have seen leads dwindle and/or evaporate in the middle stanza, and it was no different Friday.
New York rallied with goals 3:54 apart in the second period.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh made an aggressive play to keep the puck in New Jersey's zone, carried behind the net and sent a wraparound feed that was hammered in by Fedotenko at 9:47.
The Rangers tied it after Brandon Dubinsky won a faceoff to Brodeur's right. The puck was moved to the right point and rearguard Dan Girardi let go a shot that deflected off Ryan Callahan's leg and past Brodeur's glove at 13:41.
Carter committed an interference penalty midway through the third, but New Jersey negated the power play.
"After a little bit of a struggle, we gathered ourselves and I thought we played two really good periods," said New York head coach John Tortorella. "I thought it was going to end in overtime. I thought it was going to be us."
Brodeur made 33 saves, while Lundqvist stopped 26 shots...Henrique set a new franchise record for most points by a rookie in a single playoff year with 11...Kovalchuk registered his fifth power-play goal this postseason, tying a club record...New Jersey has given up 17 second-period goals and has scored only six...Brodeur played in his 199th career playoff game...The Rangers had won their last seven playoff series in which they held home-ice advantage.