Updated at 12:30 a.m., May 26, 2012
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The memory of missing the playoffs for first time since 1996 and the ghost of an 18-year-old wound were wiped out with a sweep of rookie Adam Henrique’s stick.
The New Jersey Devils are going back to the Stanley Cup finals, thanks to Henrique, a 40-year-old goaltender and a coach who’d never been to the postseason in the NHL.
How’s that for a turnaround?
Henrique scored off a wild scramble in front at 1:03 into overtime and the Devils defeated the rival New York Rangers, 3-2, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003.
“It means a lot,” Devils leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk said minutes after reaching the Cup finals for the first time. “It’s a great feeling. Last year was a tough one, but this year was totally different. We played well all year. The first round of the playoffs was a little tough but after that, I think we figured out our game and what it takes to win.”
After beating Florida, Philadelphia and their biggest rivals, the Rangers, only the Los Angeles Kings stand in the way of a fourth Cup for New Jersey.
The title round begins here Wednesday.
This series win came against the Devils’ most intense rival, and it was that much sweeter.
“That one was like Christmas,” said Henrique, who also scored the series winner in overtime as Devils’ first-round, Game 7 win over the Panthers.
It also was needed. The Devils blew a 2-0 first-period lead and didn’t want to head back to New York for a Game 7 on Sunday.
“It didn’t matter how it got to overtime, we were in a good position,” Devils captain Zach Parise said. “We were at home. We just needed one shot.”
Actually, the Devils needed four shots to win the game.
Henrique’s winner came after Henrik Lundqvist stopped Kovalchuk twice and Alexei Ponikarovsky. The last shot lay in the crease and Henrique tapped it home.
“We caught them on a line change and their defensemen were tired,” said Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who was fired by Florida after missing the playoffs in his three seasons. “We found a way to jam one in. 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.”
Ryan Carter and Kovalchuk also scored for the Devils, whose biggest move this year was hiring DeBoer. He has more than proved his coaching ability.
Ruslan Fedotenko and Ryan Callahan tallied for top-seeded New York, which had a good flurry just before New Jersey scored to end it.
Henrique, who is nominated for the Calder Trophy — given to the NHL’s top rookie — skated away from the crease and jumped against the end boards in the corner as his teammates hopped off the bench and mobbed him.
The six Rangers on the ice just stayed down in disbelief and frustration. This was very much like Game 5, which the Devils won 5-3. New York carried the play after the first period and had a 35-29 edge in shots.
But when it came time for a game-deciding play to be made, it was a Devil who made it.
“When they scored, it was such an empty feeling,” said Lundqvist, who said the puck took a weird bounce on the final play. “It is shocking.”
Henrique overcame injury to score this one. He seemed to take a stick from Brian Boyle in the groin area late in the third and had to leave the ice.
He felt no pain after the game winner.
All the Rangers could do was bow their heads and then line up for the traditional handshake after losing to their cross-rival rivals in a series that was close.
“That’s playoff hockey, and that’s usually where you get an overtime goal,” Rangers veteran Brandon Prust said. “Just whacking away in front of the net, getting rebounds.”
Martin Brodeur, 40, kept the Devils alive in the third. He stopped a power-play shot by Brad Richards, made a save on Artem Anisimov between the circles and used his stick to deflect a pass from the boards by Carl Hagelin in the final minute just before it got to Marian Gaborik on the edge of the crease.
“You could tell he was in the zone. He led us,” Parise said. “He made some big saves tonight.”
Lundqvist’s best stop in the third was on Dainius Zubrus on a shot from behind the circles.
Facing elimination and down 2-0 after 20 minutes, the Rangers found their game in the second period and tied the game at 2-all on goals by Fedotenko and Callahan in a roughly four-minute span.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who assisted on both goals, made the big play to get New York back in the game. He collected the puck above the left circle, skated around the net and tried a wrap around. The shot didn’t go on goal but it turned out to be a perfect pass to Fedotenko who a tap-in into an open net at 9:47.
Callahan, who had a New York goal go off his leg in the Devils’ 5-3 win on Wednesday, tied the game at 13:41 when Dan Girardi’s shot from the right point deflected off his leg into the open lower corner of the net. Callahan’s sixth of the postseason was set up when Brandon Dubinsky won a faceoff in the left circle.
Carter, who scored the game winner in New York on Wednesday night after the Devils blew a 3-0 lead, put New Jersey ahead again at 10:05 of the opening period.
The play started with a bad pinch at the point by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal. Steve Bernier led a 3-on-1 and found Stephen Gionta coming down the middle for a solo chance against Lundqvist. The Rangers goaltender stopped the shot, but Carter swatted the rebound home for his fourth of the playoffs.
Kovalchuk’s seventh goal of the postseason and fifth on the power play was a thing of beauty. All five Devils skaters touched the puck with tape-to-tape passes with Zubrus finding Kovalchuk alone low in the left circle for a shot that Lundqvist had little chance to stop.
The Devils — as is the tradition for many Cup finalists — did not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy that was presented at center ice. As the team skated off to their locker room, “Glory Days,” the 1984 hit from New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen serenaded them.
The game was played on the 18-year anniversary of the Rangers’ dramatic, 4-2, Game 6 victory over New Jersey at the Meadowlands, a victory that pushed that classic Eastern Conference final series to a Game 7 and eventually led New York to its first Stanley Cup in 54 years. That game, of course, was preceded by a guarantee from Rangers captain Mark Messier, who delivered three goals en route to the victory.
This time, though, there will be no Game 7.
NOTES: The Empire State Building’s tower lights were lit in red and blue on Friday to cheer on the Rangers. … Mogul and TV personality Donald Trump was at the game. … Devils C Travis Zajac left the ice briefly in the second after being slashed on the left hand by Prust. No penalty was called. … New Jersey is 4-1 in overtime in the postseason. New York finished 2-3 after regulation.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)