- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's best of three, folks.
The Devils had every chance to put this series out of reach in Games 3 and 4, but two quick-and-clean overtime wins have given the Ducks all the momentum and given the Devils a serious death threat. "We missed a great opportunity to get a hold of this series," Martin Brodeur said on the morning of Game 4. "We have another opportunity now, and we can't miss it." Well, they did miss it. And you get the feeling this would not have happened to the Devils of years past. That's because even though Jersey has the talent to win the Cup, there is one ingredient missing.
Where's the outrage? Where's the nastiness? Remember the saying, "Well, by Game 4 these two teams really get to hating each other"? Remember when players in the Stanley Cup finals had their faces mangled from two months' worth of assault and battery? By this unofficial count, the only blood drawn so far in this series was when Pascal Rheaume took a stick to the nose. And that didn't exactly get anybody's ire up. Now Rheaume's small scar is the only visible cut anywhere on the ice. "No serious cuts," said an Anaheim staffer after Game 4. "Basically it's, 'Put a Band-Aid on it.'" Of course no one wants dirty play, and no one wants to encourage violence, but ... can the Devils get a little violent here?
Let's take a look at the Ducks' top offensive players: Paul Kariya, Petr Sykora, Adam Oates. Are any of these guys more than six feet tall? Over 210 pounds? They are all superb and exciting, but they are all similar. And they are all getting away with playing a pass-and-skate game because there is no one standing in the way. Both Ruslan Salei and Steve Thomas had good, open looks for their game-winners. "We decided as a team to turn up our games," Thomas said after Game 4. Since when is that decision a unilateral one? What happened to punishing players for their scoring opportunities? Where's the fear factor? Asked if he would describe these games as particularly physical or rugged, Jason Krog shrugged and said, "No worse than any other series." And this is the Stanley Cup finals.
The Devils let the player they needed walk away. And surely a couple of hearts leapt back in the Garden State when No. 16 took the ice Monday night for the road team. Alas no, that wasn't Bobby Holik out there for the Devils. It was Michael Rupp. New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello let Holik go over the offseason because of money, but it seems this is the type of series in which a guy like Holik (or Claude Lemieux or Jason Arnott) could make an enormous difference.
What we have in the Ducks is a patient, system-oriented team. They wait for mistakes, even if those mistakes don't come in the first 60 minutes. In short, they don't take chances. It's basically overtime all the time for Anaheim, and they're quite comfortable that way. In the Anaheim locker room after regulation, the Ducks had to be licking their chops. Coach Mike Babcock -- who, by the way, might be the most intimidating guy on their bench -- actually told Thomas before OT that "this is your time." But was anyone in the other room glaring or screaming for blood? Doubtful. And just like in Game 3, the Devils came out for the extra session with a thud -- a complete breakdown. Now someone is going to have to get a little chippy if the Devils are going to avoid another loss and an elimination game back in Anaheim on Saturday.
And what better way to wreck a system than by rattling it a little? If any little distraction can cost a game or a series, why not introduce a little harshness into the equation? The answer, of course, is that a penalty -- or even stepping out of position to make a big hit -- could mean Armaggedon. (And those called in Game 4 were as weak as a final-round Survivor contestant.) But the Ducks haven't scared anyone with their power play since Teemu Selanne left town. Also, a guy like Holik has ways of getting his message across without winding up in the box.
And think of the potential upside of having a Holik or a Lemieux or an Arnott out there against Kariya or Sykora or Thomas. The Ducks have no serious power forwards to retaliate. So one big hit will have quite a few heads turning when it's time to race into the corner for a loose puck.
But instead it will have to be John Madden or Jeff Friesen. Stevens is his team's heart and soul -- a near-flawless player -- but he's not a forward and he can't forecheck. Burns has complained about his lack of faceoff experts, but it's another kind of expert he really needs. Because if every remaining game plays like the last two, the Ducks have the Devils right where they want them.
"It was a real patient game," said Babcock after Game 4. "It was like chess."
Like chess. Ducks gotta love that. And now it's time for someone over in the Devils locker room to chuck the board and scatter all the pieces.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.
6dScott Burnside and Craig Custance