EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- While the journey through the postseason has had some perilous moments, the defending champion New Jersey Devils are right where they expected to be -- in the Stanley Cup finals.
Jason Arnott scored twice and the Devils inched closer to their third title since 1995 by defeating Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 Tuesday night to win the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final in five games.
Bobby Holik and John Madden also scored for the Devils, who will face the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the finals Saturday in Denver.
''We knew how good we can be,'' Holik said. ''This is not a surprise to us that we are back. It was just a matter of whether we wanted to do it or not.''
The Devils seemingly couldn't make up their minds for the opening two rounds of the playoffs. They were very inconsistent in beating the Carolina Hurricanes in six games and then they had to rally from a 3-2 deficit to beat Toronto in seven games in the second round.
That comeback seemed to convince the Devils they wanted another shot at the Cup. They dominated the Penguins in the conference finals, holding Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, the league's leading scorer, without a goal.
''This is the most self-driven team I have ever seen,'' said defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who was acquired late in the season as a final piece to the Devils' puzzle.
''Larry (Robinson) is great with Xs and Os and he occasionally gives a pep talk, but other guys aren't afraid to step up and talk,'' O'Donnell added. ''This team wants to play perfect hockey. We win 3-1 and we're mad. We want to win 5-1. That's the sign of a champion. That's why this team is going back.''
New Jersey won both regular regular-season games with the Avalanche, knocking out goaltender Patrick Roy twice in posting 6-1 and 6-3 wins.
''The regular season isn't always indicative of what's going to happen,'' veteran Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said. ''It's nice to know we were able to put some pucks behind and that we skated well against them.''
While they had moments of inconsistency in the playoffs, the Devils played some of their best hockey in bringing the curtain down on the Penguins storybook season in which Lemieux returned after a 3 1/2-year retirement.
Super Mario and Jagr had very little to show in this series, starting with no goals. Jagr, who thinks he will be traded in the offseason because of his $10 million salary, was held scoreless. Lemieux has three assists, but showed his frustration in the final minute by cross-checking Madden after he claimed the Devils forward laughed at him.
''It was a great ride, especially after coming back after 3 1/2 years,'' Lemieux said. ''Obviously, we wanted to get to the finals. We got beat by a great team.''
Pittsburgh's Aleksey Morozov and Martin Straka each scored their second goal of the series in Game 5.
The talented Penguins had just seven goals in the series against Martin Brodeur and not many more scoring chances against the Devils' tenacious neutral zone trap.
''I think that's a perfect model to compete for the Stanley Cup,'' Lemieux said. ''It's a great system they play. It's very simple. You just have to have an organization that is committed to playing it.''
Pittsburgh actually played one of its better periods in the second period but still fell behind 3-2 as Arnott broke a 1-1 tie on a power play and Holik added another on an odd-man rush.
Arnott's second of the game and seventh of the playoffs came when he one-timed a pass from Petr Sykora past a screened Johan Hedberg at 7:41.
Holik stretched the lead to two goals a little less than five minutes later, taking a drop pass from Jay Pandolfo and ripping a shot past Hedberg.
At that point it looked like the Penguins were done.
After Holik took a hooking penalty, Hedberg stopped Madden on a breakaway and Straka scored on a counterattack, putting his own rebound past Brodeur.
Straka was stopped on a rebound in close late in the second period and Lemieux whiffed on a bouncing puck early in the third as the Penguins came close to tying the game.
Madden ended their chances at 3:32 of the third period, breaking in alone on the left wing and scoring one-on-one with Hedberg, who was outstanding in making 19 saves.
After shutting out the Penguins in Games 3 and 4, the Devils looked like they were ready to bury them in the opening minutes of Game 5, when Arnott scored 57 seconds after the opening faceoff.
It took the Penguins almost 16 minutes to get their first shot, a bad-angle attempt by Jagr from the right corner.
About 40 seconds after that, they had a goal.
With Sykora being whistled for a delayed penalty, defenseman Ian Moran took a pass from Jan Hrdina, lifted a pass over Brian Rafalski's stick to Morozov all alone down low. The goal snapped Brodeur's shutout streak at 151 minutes, 19 seconds.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.