While the two Western Conference finalists were unpredictable surprises, the two Eastern Conference teams shouldn’t have caught us off-guard as much. After all, the New York Rangers finished as the top seed in the conference while the New Jersey Devils may have been the sixth seed but they still tallied 102 points, which was fourth-best in the East.

But who really thought the Devils would be a 100-point team? Definitely not the NHL odds makers, who pegged the Devils regular season point total at a paltry 90.5. That was the sixth-lowest point total projection for any team in the conference.

The reason very little was expected from the Devils was because of what they did last year. It’s easy to forget but the Devils only had 81 points in the 2010-11 regular season and they were actually the worst team in the league through the first half of that season (10 wins in their first 41 games). Although they came on strong in the second half, the Devils didn’t make any significant changes in the offseason to indicate that they’d be 21 points better in the standings.

But sharp bettors actually pounded the OVER on the regular season point total and the reason is quite simple: 2010-11 was a throwaway season for New Jersey (or at least the first half). The Devils didn’t make major changes to their roster this offseason but quite frankly, aside from acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils haven’t made any major roster changes in the past 10 years. They’re quietly tinkering and making tweaks here and there but they’ve never had to overhaul. That’s part of the reason why they’ve been so consistent.

So when bettors looked back two years to the 2009-10 season, they saw a Devils team that finished second in the conference with 103 points. The year before that, they were third with 106 points and going back two more years, they were fourth with 99 points and second with 107 points. Here’s a clearer picture:

2011-12: 102 points

2010-11: 81 points

2009-10: 103 points

2008-09: 106 points

2007-08: 99 points

2006-07: 107 points

2005-06: 101 points

2004-05: 100 points

2002-03: 103 points

Overall, the Devils have had 95 points or more in 15 of the last 16 years, so betting OVER 90.5 was not a big gamble for the sharps; it was basically a gift.

The Devils have arguably been the most consistent team in the Eastern Conference over the last 16 years but in recent years, they’ve earned little notice. While they’ve earned three Stanley Cups in that span, part of the problem in this “what have you done for me lately” environment is that until this year, the Devils hadn’t passed the second round of the playoffs in eight seasons.

So what changed this year? In short, the Devils just caught their breaks.

With Martin Brodeur in net and a solid defensive corps again, the Devils were always bound to be a playoff team in 2011-12.  Their defense is always stingy and that was the case once again as they allowed merely 209 goals this season, which was third-fewest in the East.

If there was a slight change in this year’s Devils, it’s that their offense managed to produce a little bit more. They scored the fewest goals in the NHL last season and hadn’t been better than eighth in any of the last six seasons. This year, they finished with the seventh-most goals scored in the conference on the strength of two players finishing top 10 in scoring: Ilya Kovalchuk (83 points) and Patrik Elias (78).

Even with an offense that had more bite to it, the Devils still needed some breaks. They were deemed to have a gift first-round playoff matchup against the “lowly” Florida Panthers but they required double-overtime in Game 7 just to survive. In the second round, they caught a Philadelphia Flyers team that was in letdown mode and quickly ousted. It took eight years but the Devils finally got their breaks.

As it stands now, they have an excellent shot of winning the East and going beyond. The New York Rangers play the exact same style of hockey as New Jersey but the Rangers are struggling offensively while the Devils have more offense. And with Brodeur between the pipes, the Devils are left as the most experienced goaltender around.

Have the Devils overachieved? Not exactly. As the numbers show, what they did in the regular season is on par with what they’ve done consistently over the last 16 years. It’s just now they’ve finally put it together in the playoffs and done something they hadn’t done in eight years: get past the second round.