PHILADELPHIA — Martin Brodeur missed all the postseason fun a year ago. One of the game's all-time greats, the veteran goaltender considered retirement and the New Jersey Devils were absent from the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Flash forward a year later. The cheering and hollering from behind closed doors in the Devils locker room could be heard way down the Wells Fargo Center hallway. Days after he turned 40, Brodeur has the Devils back where they've been six other times before in their 30-year history:
The Eastern Conference Finals.
Bryce Salvador, David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk scored goals to lift New Jersey to a 3-1 Game 5 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, sending the Devils into the conference championship round for the first time since 2003.
The Devils await the winner of the New York-Washington series, which the Rangers lead, 3-2. New Jersey rebounded this season under coach Peter DeBoer in his first season on New Jersey's bench after the franchise suffered one of its worst years since general manager Lou Lamoriello took over in 1987.
Brodeur had 27 saves and the Devils hope they can ride him all the way to June one more time.
"It seems forever for a lot of guys," Brodeur said. "It's tough to do that. We're fortunate to have made it there so far."
The sixth-seeded Devils scored twice in the first period and became the first East team to win four straight games in these playoffs.
"It was just sticking with the game plan and doing what it takes to be successful," DeBoer said. "Marty made some saves when he needed to, and we held on."
Max Talbot scored for the Flyers, but Philadelphia was eliminated in the conference semifinals for the second straight season. The Flyers finished the season without suspended All-Star forward Claude Giroux because of his illegal check to the head on New Jersey center Dainius Zubrus in Game 4.
"It should have been a tighter series," Giroux said, wearing a suit.
The Flyers underwent a facelift last summer that saw them trade team captain Mike Richards to the Los Angeles Kings and acquire goalie Ilya Bryzgalov from the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Kings and Coyotes will play in the West finals while the Flyers watch from home.
The Flyers again failed in the postseason to hold a quick lead after Talbot scored in the first. Meanwhile, the Devils survived a rugged series of hits unleashed by a frustrated Flyers team that failed to build anything off the surprising first-round victory over Pittsburgh. Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky and Zubrus all suffered punishing hits that knocked them down to the ice in Game 5.
Bryzgalov had a disheartening end to an erratic first season in Philadelphia. He allowed two YouTube-worthy goals like only he can. Salvador unleashed a shot from outside the circle that skipped along the ice as if he threw a rock across a pond and sailed high over Bryzgalov for the tying goal.
In a season loaded with head-scratching tallies allowed, Bryzgalov saved the weirdest for the finale. Clarkson's dump-in was pushed by Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen toward the goaltender. Instead of controlling it, wrapping it around the boards or even just covering it, Bryzgalov pushed it right back toward a charging Clarkson, whose stick grazed the puck as it slid through the netminder and past the line.
"I honestly had no idea it went in until I heard the crowd yelling," Clarkson said. "Just to be on the forecheck when that went in is an unbelievable feeling."
The Devils could have credited Bryzgalov with an assist on that goal.
"I was just trying to pressure him to make a play," Clarkson said. "I had no idea it was in until the crowd starting booing. It's a goal I'll take any day."
Kovalchuk fired a liner from the high slot after the Devils won the faceoff to make it 3-1 in the third to seal the win. From there, New Jersey's depth took over and stuffed any hope of a home team rally.
"The fact that we have four lines and roll six defensemen really helps," DeBoer said. "It's a team game. We play that way, and guys really believe in what we're doing. But that's a good team we just beat over there, and we have a long way to go."
All the inspirational "Rocky" clips on their highlight reel couldn't inspire the Flyers. Even Giroux's presence may not have mattered in Game 5. Without their leading scorer, the Flyers tried to knock around the Devils with a series of both clean and questionable hits.
The Devils have won six of seven and believe they have another title run in them. This is the third time in franchise history New Jersey has defeated Philadelphia in the postseason. The previous two times (1995 and 2000), the Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Brodeur has gone from answering questions about retirement to ones about another chase for the Cup. He has been in net for all three of New Jersey's titles, including 2003, the franchise's last one.