Devils no longer flying high after cross-country trip

Wednesday, June 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- Maybe there is something to the notion that coast-to-coast traveling doesn't agree with the New Jersey Devils.

A trip to California wiped out the Devils' big lead in the Stanley Cup finals, and the trip back seems to have erased their memory of the games.

When asked if New Jersey was too hesitant in the final minutes of its 1-0 overtime loss in Game 4, captain Scott Stevens couldn't recall what happened.

"I don't even remember the last 10 minutes, to be honest with you," Stevens said Tuesday night. "I don't think so. ... That's the way the whole game went. It was pretty much tight checking. There wasn't a whole lot going on."

When the Devils were last at home, they enjoyed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-series over the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. No team has lost the finals after winning the first two games since 1971, and the Devils didn't entertain the thought they would break the trend.

That was before the trip to Anaheim.

If the Devils lose Game 5 at home on Thursday, they will give the Ducks a chance to win their first Stanley Cup in Anaheim on Saturday.

The Devils didn't allow any goals in the two games at home, let alone give the Ducks much hope they could win a game. But then the cross-country flight was taken, and the advantage was soon snatched away.

Getting around the Eastern Conference is much easier than out West. But the Ducks don't seem to mind their travel. They got through the first three rounds of the playoffs in 14 games, just two over the minimum.

It's the Stanley Cup Finals," goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere said upon the Ducks' return East. "There is three games left in a season if you're tired. There is not such a thing as fatigue."

Certainly not after Giguere, in his first NHL postseason, issued the key motivational speech to his team that led to the two Anaheim victories.

He didn't want to hear that the Ducks didn't belong in the finals or that they were a fluke like Carolina a year ago. After all, his team beat the top two seeds in the West and then swept surprising Minnesota in the conference finals.

Giguere just wanted his team to play like it had when it was one of the NHL's best clubs in the second half of the season.

"That definitely helped," defenseman Keith Carney said of Giguere's speech. "Coming from Jiggy, it goes a long way because everybody looks up to him. He's been our best player."

The Devils made it a point in the opening two games to do anything they could to rattle Giguere's confidence. They wanted to get in front of him, hassle him, and most of all, get pucks past him.

In the closing minutes of Game 2, their plan had worked. New Jersey was polishing off its second straight 3-0 win and had the Ducks' goalie smashing and tossing away his stick.

"We got a lot of goals being in front of him," Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "He's a pretty big goalie, so we do have to shoot high and try to make him commit to a bigger puck area. We've just got to put them in."

Once he got back home, Giguere found his game.

It was there that Devils goalie Martin Brodeur lost his edge and his stick. In Game 3, Brodeur's stick slipped out of his hand and knocked a puck in. That was the break that never came Anaheim's way in New Jersey.

Brodeur was almost victimized again by a crazy bounce off the boards that led to a flub with his glove in Game 4. He managed to keep that one out, but Steve Thomas got a rebound by him 39 seconds into overtime to knot the series.

"It's no panic here, but it's what we wanted to avoid," Brodeur said.

The series has been whittled down to a best-of-three. Home ice hasn't been that great of an advantage throughout this year's playoffs, but these teams can be excluded from the mix.

It has made all the difference.

The Devils are 10-1 at home, while the Ducks are 8-1. They have combined to go 4-0 in this series, making Game 5 that much more important than it already was.

"It's fine," Stevens said. "It's 2-2, so I don't think there is any reason to push a panic button. It's back to our building. Like I said, it's not over yet. Nothing's over."