Thursday, June 7, 2012

Devils' resilience shows yet again in Game 4 win

Despite being behind 3-0 in games to a white-hot Kings team heading into last night's Game 4 after being shut down 4-0 in Game 3, the Devils vowed not to give in to the overwhelming odds against them. And as has been the case throughout these playoffs, they did not buckle to adversity in a hostile building with the Stanley Cup in the house. Yet, for the longest time it looked as if the series was going to end with one final frustration. Even when the Devils finally were able to grab their first lead of the series at 7:56 of the third period, a questionable penalty call on David Clarkson led to a Drew Doughty power play goal exactly a minute later that could have been the final, crushing blow to the Devils' psyche. Maybe for a lesser team it would have been just that.

Then again, a lesser team wouldn't have gotten this far in the first place with all the obstacles the Devils have already faced. True to form, they fought their way through when Adam Henrique - sporting much less facial hair other than a Ryan Carter-esque mustache - scored yet another big goal with just 4:31 left in regulation to restore the Devils' lead. Shortly after, Willie Mitchell took an ill-timed (for them) high-sticking penalty on Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovy would get the last laugh on the Kings and their booing fans, by scoring an empty-netter for his eighth goal of the playoffs to seal the game with just twenty seconds remaining, ensuring both teams a trip back to Newark for Game 5 Saturday night.

Prior to last night's game, after making no changes to the lineup through the first three games, coach Pete DeBoer made two pivotal ones last night - restoring vets Petr Sykora and Henrik Tallinder to the lineup - at the expense of Jacob Josefson and Peter Harrold. I was in the minority of Devil fans in that I was in favor of both changes. Sure, Josefson brings speed and Sykora's a one-dimensional player right now, but after scoring two goals in three games plus two OT's, it's a dimension we sorely needed. And while Harrold's played well, the Kings' size has really hurt us in the series. Tallinder adds both that and a veteran presence to the lineup, not to mention gives us another defenseman who can play on the PK, which has struggled throughout the playoffs.

Of course, there were emotional reasons to want to put them both in the lineup as well. Tallinder's fought back from a blood clot in his leg which has kept him out for over four months, and was only recently cleared to return to action. Not to mention Tallinder's been a vet in this league for a long time and never was able to take the ice in a Stanley Cup Final game. Brian knows how close Tallinder came in 2006, when injuries to he - and other Sabre defensemen - derailed them just short of the Finals that year. For Sykora it's just the opposite, he's been to a remarkable six Stanley Cup Finals in twelve seasons ('00-01 Devils, '03 Ducks, '07-08 Pens and now this year)...but after a Cindrella season where he came back from the scrap heap to put up 20+ goals and 40+ points, this could be his last opportunity on a big stage with the team he started out with.

Results were mostly positive, as Sykora played just over twelve minutes and forced Johnathan Quick to make a tough early save. He also got a +1 for being on the ice when longtime buddy Elias scored off a rebound of a Bryce Salvador shot. Tallinder played nearly twenty minutes, registering two shots on goal and providing a boost to a defense that looked on the verge of getting overrun in Game 3 after performing valiantly in the postseason. Early on, the Devils played with the desperation of a team not wanting to go home yet but after a penalty-filled first period (two minors for each team) and a second period where the Kings held us without a shot for nearly fifteen minutes, things didn't look too good. Though Martin Brodeur was keeping the game scoreless, the low shot totals on both sides - fourteen for the Kings and eleven for us - magnified the importance of getting the first goal.

Knowing I would be uptown anyway after my own little playoff drama (a final in a kickball league that we lost due to a tough bounce off a tree that cost us three runs, but we still got a $75 food and drink gift certificate at a local bar/restaurant for coming in second), I figured I might as well stay at the bar for the duration of the game, hoping to change our luck. Between being at a bar and hanging out with my team for the last time, I wasn't paying as much attention to the first two periods as I'd intended to, but after everyone else left during the second intermission I was going to as well. Then I doubled back to go to the bathroom and started chatting up some girls from another team - all Devils fans staying at the bar for the game. Considering my team was filled with Ranger and Flyer fans for the most part, this was a welcome sight for me so I hung with them in the third period and was able to watch more of the drama that unfolded.

After Elias's goal I had hope, but when Clarkson got called for his 'boarding' (more like a love tap), I had a bad feeling. Of course, it only took seconds for Doughty to score and at this point it just didn't seem fair. Not so much for the bad call itself, but to play so hard and finally take a lead after over four games' worth of hockey - factoring in the overtimes - only to lose it a minute later like that, it just made me sad. Having a great season end this way with all of this effort being crushed without a sniff of hope didn't seem right. However, last night hockey justice did get served in the end when Clarkson wound up contributing to the goal that put us back in front. Clarkson's cross ice pass found the skate of Henrique and the clutch rookie made a brilliant play, kicking the puck to his stick, then rifling a high shot past Quick shortside for his fourth huge goal of the postseason. While his prior two goals eliminated another team, this one prevented our own elimination as the Devils took a 2-1 lead.

Thanks to Mitchell's penalty, the Devils were able to not only run off two vital minutes but even come up with some chances on a makeshift power play that employed two defensemen. With our normal power play 0-for the series (in fourteen chances), perhaps DeBoer should scrap the normal unit and just run our normal cycling offense with the man advantage? If pointmen Kovalchuk and Marek Zidlicky were healthy, it would be one thing but with both battling injuries and our third pointman on the power play (Harrold) sitting in the stands, it's not as if the normal power play is going to do much anyway...particuarly against a terrific Kings PK that looks for shorthanded chances. Five-on-five we've either held our own or dominated most of the postseason, maybe treating the power play like a five-on-five and keeping it simple will yield some unexpected dividends. It couldn't be any worse, other than actually allowing shorthanded goals, and theoretically having two defensemen are supposed to help prevent that anyway. Heck, throw out the fourth line too while we're at it, since they've been the only line consistently scoring goals over the last couple of weeks.

In any event the power play was beneficial to us, and we finished out a period where we more than doubled our shot total in style - with Kovy getting the empty-netter to ensure not only both teams went back to Newark, but the Stanley Cup as well. With the Cup in our building for Game 5 this time, I've been pondering how I'll handle things if Saturday's game goes the wrong way. Most hockey fans are good in that they stay for the ceremony itself - there's been plenty of evidence of that over the last few years with the last four Cups going to the visiting team. Even though I was in the building for 2003 when the 'right' team won, you can't take these ceremonies for granted. Hockey's got the best trophy in sports and is the hardest to win. Even just seeing the Cup presented itself is rare and staying an extra ten-fifteen minutes to commemorate the end of another NHL season on a Saturday night isn't the worst thing in the world. Of course, if the game goes to multiple OT's all bets are off. Me and my friend may just stay around long enough to see the Devils off if that happens and then get out of dodge, I can always see the ceremony on TV and I don't need to stick around to boo Gary Bettman (as I'm sure most Devil fans will do, vociferously) at one in the morning.

All that said, I have more belief in this Devils team down 3-1 than I did in the first round when we were down 3-2 to Florida. This team's proven so much already during this postseason, shedding its recent demons and showing they can handle whatever gets thrown at them. It's not so much a belief we will come back, the task still remains daunting and my respect for LA is still there. However, I do think we'll win Game 5, and then if it gets back to LA for Game 6 all the pressure in the world shifts to them. All bets are off if we're able to come out of there with a win. I do get tired of hearing the cliche 'one at a time' because however true it is, it's overstated to a degree. Everyone knows you can only win one at a time, but you still have to win three more in a row no matter how you want to slice it.

Someone else put it in a new way that I hadn't thought of before, but one that makes the task in front of us seem far less daunting. If you're a Devils fan, think of these four games (starting with Game 4) in the same way you would think of the NCAA tournament. Four straight single-elimination games - I know it's actually six in the NCAA but I digress - to win a Stanley Cup. College teams win four and even five-six straight single-elimination games every year in the NCAA tournament. We only have to win three more. That analogy really de-mythicizes history a little, the history that says only three teams ever in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, only one in the Stanley Cup Finals...way back in 1942. Not to mention it did just happen with the Flyers and Bruins a couple of years ago in an East semifinal, and nearly happened with Red Wings-Sharks and Blackhawks-Canucks playoff series in the last couple of years as well. Both of those series went to a Game 7 and were decided by one goal, after a 3-0 lead was taken. With the parity in this league, it becomes less about talent and more about execution and who can get hot.

Make no mistake, this will be tough...and it still wouldn't shock me if the Kings won tomorrow night and completed their perfect 11-0 road record in the playoffs. However, if the Devils do manage to ride home-ice to a win, then the flicker of hope I now have will burst into a full flame. I'll be one of the 17,625 in the building on Saturday (well I'm not really sure about the 17,625 now that section 226 in the upper deck has been turned into another press room), hoping against hope for this magical run to continue.

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