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The New Jersey Devils celebrate after beating the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Friday, May 25, 2012, in Newark, N.J. The Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. (Frank Franklin II/Frank Franklin II/AP)
The New Jersey Devils celebrate after beating the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Friday, May 25, 2012, in Newark, N.J. The Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. (Frank Franklin II/Frank Franklin II/AP)

Eastern Conference final

Devils beat Rangers in overtime, advance to Stanley Cup final Add to ...

Let the fifth season begin.

Wayne Gretzky, who has more than a little insight into the game and its rhythms, has said that the hockey year could be divided into fifths. The exhibition season becomes the regular season which, following the trade deadline, turns into a stretch season as final playoff seedings are decided. Then there are the playoffs, with the actual Stanley Cup final separate from everything that has gone before it. Five different seasons.

The fifth can finally now begin, thanks to a 3-2 overtime victory by the New Jersey Devils over the stubborn New York Rangers.

The Devils scored only 1:03 into the first extra period when 22-year-old Adam Henrique – born in Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Ont. – rammed the puck home during a wild goalmouth scramble at the Rangers’ net.

The win means that the Devils, eastern conference champions, can go on to meet the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup final, what Gretzky called the fifth season. The final will begin here at the Prudential Center on Wednesday.

Anyone who doubts that the fourth round of the Stanley Cup playoffs stands apart from the three that precede it – and is played apart and often officiated apart – needs only ask the 2011 Vancouver Canucks, the 2007 Ottawa Senators, the 2006 Edmonton Oilers and the 2004 Calgary Flames, just to get the most recent Canadian perspectives on the how different that final round can be from whatever has gone before.

Before the New Jersey Devils could prepare to meet the Los Angeles Kings in that final, decisive round, however, they had to dispose of these resilient New York Rangers, a team of less talent, much-less entertainment value but equal determination.

Just as happened in Game 5, the Devils got a quick start from the fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter. Carter, who had scored the winner in the previous game, got the first goal in this game when the threesome came up ice on a three-on-one break and Carter was able to chip a Gionta rebound back of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Devils head coach Peter DeBoer had said following Game 5 that “I wasn’t expecting this” when he put the line together. The expectation was that they would be dependable offensively and provide youthful energy, not score the goals and play important late-game minutes.

“They really have given us momentum throughout the playoffs,” added DeBoer. “That’s playoff hockey – there’s always unsung heroes.”

And then there are the “sung heroes.”

Less than four minutes after, on a Devils power play, first liner Dainius Zubrus – who had rattled a shot off the post earlier in the period – made a perfect cross net pass to Ilya Kovalchuk, and the big, hard-shooting Russian scored easily on Lundqvist to make it 2-0.

The goal was Kovalchuk’s seventh of the playoffs and his 17 points tied him for the Stanley Cup scoring lead with early-playoffs-sensation Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers. An assist on Henrique’s goal in overtime moved Kovalchuk alone into the scoring lead with 18 points.

Once again the New York Rangers failed to show up for a first period of a playoff hockey game, an annoyance that had been driving head coach John Tortorella to distraction.

If there was any solace to be found, it was historical – as well as a bit of a stretch: in the Rangers’ famous Mark-Messier led “guaranteed” win against the Devils back in 1994, the score after one period had been 2-0 in favour of the ’94 Devils, with Messier’s three goals leading the Rangers back to victory, on to a Game 7 they won and, ultimately, on to win the Stanley Cup in seven games against the Vancouver Canucks.

A ridiculous stretch, it might have seemed except….the Rangers finally found their legs and heads in the second period and so began the possible repeat of the ’94 legend. First Ruslan Fedotenko – the only player on the ice to have scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal (2004, 14:38 of second period, Game 7 versus the Calgary Flames) happened to be standing to the side of the New Jersey net when an attempted wraparound by Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh slid to his stick and he effortlessly tucked in behind goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Tortorella, who had been disappointed all season in Fedotenko’s play, said the forward had “probably played his best game of the year in Game 5.” He would need to be “even better” this night, Tortorella said. And he was.

Shortly after, Rangers captain Ryan Callaghan tied the game at two goals apiece when a Dan Girardi shot from the point hit Callaghan’s leg and skittered in past Brodeur.

Both teams played the third period with an equal share of caution and nerves, as if content to let the game to overtime where anything could happen – and did.

It seemed that just perhaps that Messier’s heroics might inspire the Rangers to find magic again, but that lovely historical parallel was snuffed out very quickly when Henrique scored.

Henrique is having quite the rookie year, having been previously named a finalist for the Calder Trophy that goes to the league’s best first-year player.

Tortorella said he was proud of the way his charges battled. “I like our jam,” he said. “I like our balls.”

But the Devils had jam, too, and skill in the likes of captain Zach Parise, Kovalchuk and 40-year-old Brodeur, who was the goaltender of record for the Devils back in 1994 and is now chasing a fourth Stanley Cup.

“There’s only one guy who likes beating the Rangers more than Marty,” said DeBoer, “and that’s lou” – meaning the team’s general manager Lou Lamoriello.

It was a deserving victory for the Devils, who play a far more exciting and adventurous game than the Rangers.

And it should make for a far better final than this tense-but-often-dreary third round.

The fifth season rarely disappoints.

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