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Wednesday, June 4

Updated: June 5, 1:40 PM ET

Devils facing different Ducks in Game 5

By Sherry Skalko
ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals is Thursday and New Jersey is at home. But which team will find it sweeter?

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks entered the Stanley Cup finals with the best road record, but admitted they weren't themselves after a 10-day layoff -- the longest in finals history -- and dropped Games 1 and 2 in New Jersey by a combined score of 5-0.

The New Jersey Devils were a victim of freak plays and admitted they were challenged by the Ducks' line changes in Games 3 and 4 at Anaheim, both overtime losses.

Now the series is tied, 2-2, and it's a best of three.

The Devils are where they want to be -- at home with the last line change.

The Ducks are where they want be -- back in New Jersey with another chance to prove themselves.

"We didn't know how (the layoff) was going to affect us," said Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock. "Then when it did, in Game 2, we were on our heels so bad it took us a while to get our game back.

"When you play like we did, you want to redeem yourself. We've always been like that. Anytime we've been faced with a challenge we've shown good resolve. So here is our opportunity. I'd like to play the game today."

New Jersey coach Pat Burns said he was glad to be back at the Meadowlands, but was vague when explaining the differences between the first two games in New Jersey and the second two games in Anaheim.

"We have to have it here," he said. "I think in Games 1 and 2 they were chasing us and in Games 3 and 4 we were chasing them. We have to make them chase us.

"If I knew those reasons, we obviously wouldn't be sitting here. We probably would be celebrating now. I wish we were, but we're not. That's why they're called four out of sevens. . . . I think our fans will definitely help us out like it helped them."

But as Babcock has pointed out more than once during the series, fans don't score goals and they don't finish checks.

The biggest benefit to being the home team is having the last line change. In Anaheim, the Ducks would orchestrate mismatches on faceoffs by putting their top lines out against the Devils' third and fourth lines. If the Ducks won the draw, the Devils would head off for a line change, which would allow the Ducks defensemen to carry the puck up the ice while their forwards were gaining speed through the neutral zone. The Devils players coming on the ice were forced to join the play in progress.

"It's not easy when you jump on the ice and you're trying to get into position and you've got a team coming at you," said Devils defenseman and captain Scott Stevens.

By taking advantage of the last change in that manner, the Ducks were able to carry the puck into the zone through the middle of the ice and generate more quality scoring chances.

Trying to match lines also disrupted the Devils offensively. Usually able to play four lines, the Devils had to shorten their bench and interrupt line combinations in order to cover the Ducks' top players who were logging more ice time than normal. At home, the Devils can dictate the matchups.

"We don't have to get off the ice every time they put guys on the ice that we don't want to play against," said Devils winger Patrik Elias. "It takes a lot out of the rhythm and the jump we would like to have."

Devils center John Madden also pointed to a minor change the Ducks made in adapting to the Devils' forechecking scheme. The Devils often "soft-chip" the puck into a corner -- basically dumping it in the offensive zone so it sits near the goalline and doesn't wrap around the end boards to the other side -- and send two players in to chase it. In Games 3 and 4, the Ducks player retrieving the puck would advance the puck deeper along the end boards to an awaiting defenseman in the other corner, instead of trying to work it out of the zone. As the second forechecker was changing direction with the puck, the Ducks defenseman had more time get it out of the zone, preventing the Devils from establishing any pressure.

"It just seemed like a long way to go for the (second forechecker), and in our system, we like to keep a third man high (in the zone)," Madden said. "So it was kind of a safe zone for them and it worked perfectly for the two games.

"I think we'll change our forecheck up and force them to start making passes again instead of just clearing it up the boards and out of the zone."

While the Devils seemed to be counting the ways they failed to win Games 3 and 4 -- "It was bad breaks or just a good play by them," Madden said -- the Ducks have their road record to count on in Game 5.

"We have been the best team on the road in the playoffs," Babcock said. "We had a setback when we came here. I think everyone who has been following the series sees we're back to playing the way we are. We knew from Day One that we were going to have to win a game on the road to get what we needed. What an opportunity this is. We feel good about ourselves. We'll be better than we have been yet in this series."

Because both teams play solid defense in even-strength situations, it stands to reason that special teams would play a more important role. Not in this series. Not only do both teams feature superior penalty-killing units (and below-average power plays), they're both disciplined and unlikely to take any liberties. The teams have combined for only 20 penalties -- less than three per game per team.

"We play as disciplined as possible and not let the other team get that opportunity to play with the man advantage, maybe that's the thought process of everyone out there," Ducks winger Steve Thomas said. "I don't think anyone really thinks 'I'm going to take a liberty and go on the penalty kill because I know the other team isn't going to score.' At any time a man-advantage is something the other team can draw on, so you maintain your discipline."

Ironically, Thomas drew a minor for cross-checking Jeff Friesen 15 seconds into Game 3, supposedly in response to Friesen mocking the Ducks bench earlier in the series.

"I wanted to set a tone, starting the game you have a lot of energy inside and sometimes you do things you wouldn't normally do," Thomas said. "That sort of thing was to let them know we were definitely ready to play."

Thomas and Ducks won't need to send such messages on Thursday. The Devils are aware that the Ducks have rediscovered the intensity and confidence that got them to the Stanley Cup finals in the first place. And they know it's their fault.

"Obviously, tomorrow's game is going to be much harder because they feel better about themselves," Elias said.

"We gave them a lot of life and they believe in each other and that's normal. We're going to have to play at our best tomorrow and try to take that away again."

Sherry Skalko is the NHL Editor for ESPN.com.
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