Monday, June 09, 2003

Winner take all

Eight months after the puck dropped to start the regular season, the most famous trophy in sports will be awarded Monday.(-- The Mighty Ducks and Devils have played for two weeks on two coasts in what have often seemed two simultaneous but wildly contrasting Stanley Cup finals.

Now, finally, there is only one: one game, Monday's Game 7. And after it, one champion, even if neither has proven worthy of earning such a distinction so far.

"You pretend playing a Game 7 on the pond when you're a kid," Ducks forward Rob Niedermayer said Sunday night. "To go there is a big thing."

The Devils have dominated the finals in New Jersey, winning three games by a combined score of 12-3 in which the Ducks barely competed. The Ducks dominated the finals in Anaheim, winning three games by a combined score of 9-4.

At the start were shutouts, now there are shootouts. The goalies set records for scoreless streaks; now they're as erratic and as exasperating as a couple of rookies. The Ducks' big scorers don't get a goal for four games; now the Devils' defensemen seem powerless to stop them.
The Devils probably figured this would be over long before now, but they've shown a perplexing inability to close out series. This is the second time in three years they couldn't win Game 6 with a 3-2 lead and, in 2001, became the first team since 1971 to lose a finals they led 3-2.

Still, the Devils would seem to have all the key advantages: home ice, supportive crowd, familiarity with playing pressure games as they complete their third finals in four years. The Ducks, a last-place team a season ago, had never advanced past the second round of the playoffs until this spring.

Also, no visiting team since Montreal won in Chicago in 1971 has taken Game 7 on the road; three teams since have tried and failed -- including the 2001 Devils at Colorado. Home teams have won all but two of 11 Game 7s overall.

"It's been a homer series so far," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. "[But] you never know what's going to happen in Game 7."

That's the Devils' biggest worry in a series they've always seemed ready to win and never really seemed in danger of losing, at least until now. They've given themselves no margin for error in a sport in which fluky plays, bad luck or an untimely bounce can undo 9 1/2 months of work in an instant.

"We're facing a team that has surprised everybody," Brodeur said. "They were down 2-0 and they were down [3-2] after Game 5, and here it is, a Game 7."

The Devils may have every advantage at home, where they are 11-1, tying the record for home wins in a playoff year, and have allowed only 13 goals. But the Ducks' own the momentum -- they've won three of the last four -- following their 5-2 victory Saturday night was every bit as decisive as the Devils' three easy wins at home.
"I think the great thing about it is you go in there and get spanked three times, so we can't play worse than we've played there," Ducks coach Mike Babcock said. "We've got to be due for a good one."

He added: "It doesn't matter where you play or who you play, it's how you play."

New Jersey also must be worrying the Ducks will carry over the emotional edge created when team captain Paul Kariya scored only minutes after being laid out by a jolting hit by Scott Stevens in the second period.

"It's such a big thing Paul Kariya did to come back from a hit like that, it gave us a very big emotional lift," Niedermayer said. "I think it does carry over. We feel confident and that's what you need going into a Game 7."

Babcock said Kariya was so energized and excited after returning from the hit, "I think he'll be great [in Game 7]."

Anaheim's Ruslan Salei also said Kariya's goal gave the Ducks an incalculable boost of confidence and determination. Maybe that's why Devils coach Pat Burns, perhaps trying to inject some of that same emotion into his team, suggested Sunday night the teams have begun to "hate" one another as the series has played out.

Kariya apparently doesn't agree with that analogy, saying, "Hate is a strong word."
Kariya also disagreed with Brodeur's suggestion the hit will make him reluctant to go over the middle again.

"I'll make the play wherever the play needs to be made," Kariya said.

Brodeur didn't mention Stevens by name, but the goalie said the Devils seemed intent on establishing themselves as the tougher team physically in Game 6, perhaps at the expense of the rest of their game.

"I think we were out of control," he said. "Defensively we ran after guys and tried to make some hits. Every time we get on the road, we seem to be like that. At home, we don't seem to have that problem."

Brodeur, who can become one of five Devils players to win a third Stanley Cup with the team, has talked to some of his less-experienced teammates, advising them what it takes to win a Game 7.

"This is huge for your career and life," he said. "It's going to change everything for everybody if we come through. You don't want to miss the boat. We have a great opportunity here, but it stays at that if ..."

If the Devils do a repeat of the 2001 finals, when they led the Avalanche 3-2 only to be outscored 7-1 in the last two games. One difference, though, is that Game 7 was on the road.

The Devils showed last month they can win a Game 7 under difficult circumstances, doing so in Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals after also failing to win Game 6 in a series they led 3-2.

"We've talked about it all year, if there's a Game 7, you want it to be in your building," Brodeur said.) in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. For the second time in three years, Martin Brodeur and the Devils are (Martin Brodeur has no interest in reliving the past, whether it be very recent history or two years ago.

All that concerns the New Jersey goalie is he and the Devils are one win away from their third Stanley Cup in nine years.

So what that they also needed just one victory against Colorado in the 2001 finals and never got it? Who cares that he gave up three first-period goals Saturday night and five overall?

With a win Monday night in Game 7 against the pesky Anaheim Mighty Ducks, New Jersey will be able to celebrate.

"One day you think you're in full control and the next day it's the end of the world," Brodeur said Sunday. "You have to be able to deal with these mood swings as good as you can. This is the last one. We won't have to deal with any mood swings after that."

The home team has won each of the first six games of the series. That bodes well for the Devils, who will be hosting this one at Continental Airlines Arena. They are 11-1 there in the 2003 playoffs and outscored the Ducks 12-3 in the three home wins.
"People in the building expect you to win," Brodeur said. "It's really a nice situation to be home, but the pressure is there."

Another victory would make the Devils the winningest home team in playoff history with 12 in one year.

"The most difficult thing about a Game 7 is trying to keep your focus," defenseman Scott Niedermayer said. "You have to keep playing as you would any game. That's the challenge."

Another will be winning again most likely without center Joe Nieuwendyk, who said Sunday night he likely won't play in Game 7 because of a hip injury that been sidelined him the entire series. Nieuwendyk practiced before Game 5 and took the pregame skate Saturday, but wasn't well enough to play.

Brodeur was beaten by a bad bounce early in Game 6 when Steve Rucchin's shot hit the foot of New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens and caromed into the net. Rucchin added another goal later in the period, and Steve Thomas made it 3-0 before the first period was finished.

He also was touched for three first-period goals against Tampa Bay in Game 3 of the second round. Brodeur's worst game in this postseason was a 5-1 loss at Boston in Game 4 of the first round when the Devils squandered a chance to sweep the Bruins.

That was the only other time he was pulled from a game in these playoffs. Brodeur was removed on Saturday with more than 10 minutes left after he allowed five goals on 22 shots. He consulted with coach Pat Burns before leaving the game.

"I had the best seat in the house," Brodeur said Sunday of his time on the bench.

If the Devils lose the Cup on home ice to the Ducks, who never had advanced past the second round, it would be a very big deal. Anaheim would be the first team in 32 years to rally from a 2-0 deficit to win the title.

"I don't believe that the home-ice advantage factor comes into play a whole lot into Game 7," Burns said. "I think what's important is I think the guys know what has to be done. We have bounced back all year long, and we'll have to see if we can pull it off again."

Only once since 1971 has a team blown a 3-2 lead. That was the Devils two years ago. The finals are going to a seventh game for the 12th time. Home teams are 9-2; the last road winner also was in 1971, Montreal at Chicago.

"You throw everything out the window," Brodeur said. "You can't rely on what's going to happen automatically just because history tells you what's going to happen. This has been a team that's been surprising everybody.")to decide the Cup.

Devils to take loss over Ducks ... ask Satan, Miroslav,

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