NEWARK, N.J. — A day after making the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2003, New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was in a good mood.
The longtime executive of a team that boasts 10 division titles and four conference championships was proud of his team and staff Wednesday, very proud. After missing the playoffs a year ago for the first time since 1996, New Jersey is back where many believe it belongs: Two rounds away from a fourth Stanley Cup.
It knocked off Florida in seven games in the opening round and then totally outplayed Philadelphia in the second round in five games, wrapping up the series with a 3-1 win Tuesday night.
The Devils are awaiting the winner of the Capitals-Rangers series, which New York led 3-2, before Wednesday night's Game 6 in Washington.
The players had the day off Wednesday after the win. But the driven Lamoriello - surprise, surprise - was working the day after New Jersey made hockey's Final Four for the first time since "Finding Nemo" was in theaters.
"We felt like we had a couple of teams in between that had the ability to do that and didn't get it done," Lamoriello said. "That's the most important thing you always impress upon everyone - how difficult it is today to get here. With the parity, there are 30 teams competing to get here and this group today should feel real good about themselves and what they have accomplished."
In some ways, the Devils looked very much like their championships teams against the Flyers. They bottled Philadelphia in their own end with an aggressive forecheck and showed why they had the best regular-season penalty-killing unit in the league, giving up three goals in 19 attempts. New Jersey also had goals from 11 players in the series, all while goaltender Martin Brodeur came up big time and time again in a series in which he turned 40.
"There is no question this team has come together," said Lamoriello. "There has been an incredible chemistry."
The Devils have overcome problems in a season in which captain Zach Parise returned after missing most of the 2010-11 campaign with a major knee injury. Top center Travis Zajac missed most of this season with an Achilles' tendon injury. And defenseman Henrik Tallinder has been sidelined since early January because of a blood clot in his left leg.
So, as expected, there were some occasional slumps here and there. But New Jersey closed strong, and finished with 102 points, seven behind the top-seeded Rangers.
"There was adversity at different times and I don't want to get into particulars, but they stayed level at all times, were totally committed and worked as hard as any group I have seen," Lamoriello said.