NEWARK, N.J. — 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.
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