- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils raged like a river in Game 5 on Thursday night. They fed off the throaty roars of their fans, the slashing strides of Turner Stevenson, the angry shoves of Grant Marshall, and the dripping blood of John Madden. They drowned the Mighty Ducks in a 6-3 monsoon, and everyone who watched from shore could see why.
"No matter what the score was, " said Devils rookie Mike Rupp, "we knew we were going to come back and win."
Now Anaheim stands knee-deep in this rising tide, staring blankly at something they have never seen before in these playoffs.
But, in a way, it's what they've been preparing for all year.
Mike Babcock walked into his team's locker room only minutes before the first game of this season and scanned his players' faces. "Boys," he said, "this is the most important game of the year."
The Ducks sat in their stalls and stole perplexed glances at each other. What did he say? The most important? This is the first game of the season. Won't the most important game come when the team is about to get knocked out of playoff contention? Or maybe the first round?
But what Babcock meant became clear as the season went on. That's because he repeated the phrase before every game. A little corny, sure. But he meant it. For the Ducks, a team relatively low on scoring power, every little battle would be a big battle. To make the playoffs, every game would have to be a big game.
The Ducks bought in. Jean-Sebastien Giguere led the way, talking about every experience -- win or lose -- as a chance for improvement. Leaders like Paul Kariya and Steve Rucchin played in every single game -- 101 over 229 days to be exact, including the playoffs. After Christmas, the Ducks were one of the best teams in the league. By playoff time, the team was repeating the coach's words: "This is the biggest game of our season," they all said. And suddenly it rang true.
The Ducks played every single game like it was Game 7, and as a result they never needed Game 7. Suddenly that intensity has gone away in three embarrassing Stanley Cup finals losses, and now the Ducks need Game 7 more than anything.
Where were those Mighty Ducks on Thursday night? Outshot 13-7 in the second. Outshot 13-4 in the third. "We just sat back and waited for something to happen," Steve Rucchin said afterwards. Those words -- weren't they used to explain all those playoff wins? Just sit back and wait for overtime, for Jiggy to save the team, for a Steve Thomas or Ruslan Salei goal, for a Devils mistake.
But no mistakes came. No, the Devils themselves came -- with shot after shot and hit after hit. Over and over until the Ducks looked up and saw six goals against and three wins against. "They were the harder-working team," Rucchin said. "They outwilled us." The Devils did it with creativity and elbow grease, with rifling blasts and tap-ins, with pretty set-ups and ugly bounces. They did it with everything. The Ducks countered with nothing.
And Rucchin knows the floodgates will not close. He knows Stevenson was just down the hall after the game, saying, "One more." He knows Marshall was nodding furiously and declaring, "We were really hungry. That's what it's all about. And next game we have to be hungrier." He knows there is no relief in the heart of Scott Stevens, who led his team to this exact same spot two years ago against Colorado and watched it all slip away. Rucchin knows the Devils' best game is still to come.
So what will it be for these Ducks? Actually, who will it be? Who will be this team's general? Who will forecheck for an undersized team? Who will shove for a sometimes too-polite team? Who will fire home the winner for a low-scoring team? Who will scream for this quiet team, after a game in which its best player -- its rock -- allowed more goals in sixty minutes than he had in an entire previous series?
Saturday night, Mike Babcock will walk into his team's locker room only minutes before what could be the last game of the season. He will scan his players' faces. And what will he say? Game 6, boys. Last home game of the year. Last chance to stem the tide. The Devils spent a six-hour flight rubbing their palms together -- getting ready to finish it off. Getting ready for a championship. The Cup is in the house, boys. Everything you've always played for, dreamed of. This is it.
The most important game of the year.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.
The Ducks are facing an elimination game for the first time. But in a way, they've been playing it all along.