PHILADELPHIA -- Ilya Kovalchuk smiled, his black beard pulled up by the corners of his mouth. He had never had a real reason to keep a beard this long before; not even close, really.
But here he was, en route to the Eastern Conference final after his New Jersey Devils won 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of their second-round series. Kovalchuk had never even won one series before this year. Now he has won two.
"It's first time in nine years I'm not going to the world championship," said Kovalchuk, who had a goal and an assist, for seven points in four games despite sitting out Game 2 with what was reported as a herniated disc. "It's fun."
The New Jersey Devils have rarely been associated with fun, and had not been associated with a conference final since they won the Cup in 2003.
But they demolished the Flyers, pried them apart, hounded them into the summertime. When asked what was the toughest part of the series, Philadelphia defenceman Kimmo Timonen said, "Well, them, obviously."
"When you get beat four times in a row, obviously the better team won," said Timonen. "Game 1 we played pretty good... but after that we fell apart somehow. I don't know why. But I got to give a lot of credit to them. They're a better team."
"If I have to be honest, I gotta say, they were very strong," said Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr, whose return at age 40 remains up in the air. "I don't think they lost a battle on the boards...they were pretty close to each other. When they made a mistake, there was always a second guy."
"I would be lying if I said I thought at the beginning, yeah we're going to beat them in five," said Devils forward David Clarkson, who scored the winning goal in the second period. "You always believe in your team and you always believe in yowur system, and you always believe... but I'd be lying if I said that."
The Flyers opened the game with several seismic hits, and scored the first goal when Max Talbot pushed a rebound past Brodeur 7:18 in. They were lifeless in Games 2 and 4; without their best player, Claude Giroux, who was suspended for a Game 4 headshot, they at least made a stand.
But the Devils crushed them. They scored 9:27 into the second period on a deflected shot from defenceman Bryce Salvador, who had not put a puck past a goaltender all year. Bryzgalov then fought the next two pucks he saw like they were live tigers, which made it odder still that Timonen decided to slide a pass back to Bryzgalov, under very mild pressure, three and a half minutes later.
Bryzgalov attempted to wrist it back out, but his attempt hit the ankle and stick of the onrushing Clarkson and bounced back into the Flyers net for a blooper goal. Bryzgalov wasn't bad at all. Like his team, he just wasn't good enough.
"Kimmo did a couple times during the season," said Bryzgalov, whose nine-year, US$51 million contract had a rocky beginning. "I think it's not what I'm not expecting."
When asked what happened on the goal, Timonen said, "Ask Bryz." "I didn't even know it was in until I heard the fans start booing," said Clarkson.
So now the Devils wait to see who wins the war of attrition between Washington and their hated rivals from New York.
-- Postmedia News
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