EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Mighty Duck center Steve Rucchin, eyes weary from a wasted opportunity, went through some of the reasons as if he were tiptoeing through rubble.
He then drew a deep breath and summed things up with the obvious truth, clear to the New Jersey Devils, the 19,040 at Continental Airlines Arena and anyone watching Thursday from their sofas at home.
"They obviously worked harder than us," Rucchin said. "They out-willed us."
The Ducks have until Saturday to fortify their own will or start drawing up one.
The Devils' 6-3 victory inched them nearer to hoisting the Stanley Cup, giving them a 3-2 lead in the finals, and nudging the Ducks closer to finalizing summer vacation plans.
The Devils wing their way west for Game 6 Saturday with a chance to collect the Cup at the Arrowhead Pond. The Ducks slink home with a lesson tattooed on their minds.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Hockey -- A caption in Sports on Friday under a photo of Coach Mike Babcock addressing a Mighty Duck player misidentified the player as Petr Sykora. The player was Dan Bylsma.
This would be easy to attribute to bad bounces, odd deflections and freak goals. The Ducks knew better.
"They just came at us wave after wave," Duck defenseman Kurt Sauer said. "We didn't do that. They took over the game.
"The game is like a blur to me. They were winning the battles, getting the puck, getting the bounces. It was tough."
The Devils were all that, and more.
Jamie Langenbrunner, a self-described checker, bagged two goals.
Jay Pandolfo scored what was the game-winner when the puck ricocheted off his skate and into the net nine minutes into the second period. The Devils took the 4-3 edge into the third period and they have won their last 28 playoff games when leading after two periods.
Brian Gionta scored when he flung the puck from just behind the net in the corner and had it hit the sticks of two Duck players before entering the net.
"When you work hard and get to the net you get the bounces," Sauer said.
The Ducks kept pace for a time, but the Devils took every opportunity to get their out-of-our-way message across, including goalie Martin Brodeur trading cross-checks with the Ducks' Rob Niedermayer in front of the net -- while play was still going on.
This was Stanley Cup 101.
The Ducks scored the first goal, when Petr Sykora fired an innocent-looking wrist shot that found a hole 42 seconds into the game. The Ducks were 10-0 in the playoffs when scoring first. The Devils still won.
Brodeur, considered as good a goalie ever to play, was dreadful, giving up three goals within the first 27 minutes. The Devils still won.
The Devils gave up three goals after surrendering only 10 in their previous 11 home playoff games. They still won.
But then Langenbrunner, the Devils' top goal-scorer in the playoffs, had two goals. Paul Kariya, the Ducks' top goal-scorer, didn't even get a shot on net.
"For us, it was just sticking with it," Langenbrunner said.
The Devils are left needing one more victory. Of course, they have been there, lost that before. They took a 3-2 series lead against Colorado in the 2001 final, then lost Game 6 at home and the series two days later.
"I think we all learned from that," Devil center Scott Gomez said. "And we know we have to prove ourselves. We also know it gets harder. It's going to be a battle, but we don't like to prolong anything."
The Ducks, on the other hand, were in a let's-go-back-to-Jersey mood.
"We have to play this next game like it is our last," Sauer said. "We have to live in the present. This [game] is in the past."
The past wasn't very appealing to the eye.
The Ducks had a 6-0 edge in shots and a 1-0 lead before two minutes had been played.
The Devils then scored two goals by hanging around the net. Pascal Rheaume redirected a pass at the left post 3:35 into the game, tying the score, 1-1. Patrik Elias circled from behind the net, where he was in perfect position to chip the puck in for a power-play goal and a 2-1 lead four minutes later.
"We let them get to the net and get easy goals," Rucchin said. "I'm not saying they weren't creating them, but J.S. [goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere] can't stop shots that come from behind him."
Goals then began dropping from the sky.
Gionta fired a shot from the corner that went off Duck defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh's stick, flipped into the air, where the Ducks' Mike Leclerc tipped it into the net for a 3-2 lead three minutes into the second period.
With the score 3-3, Gionta fired on net and Giguere made the save. But the rebound went straight out. Pandolfo, tied up by Sauer, had the puck go off his skate and back on net, and past Giguere. Referee Bill McCreary initially waved it off, but the call was overturned upon video review.
"We've got to get down and do that kind of nitty-gritty work," Rucchin said. "I expect us to next game. We have to keep our heads up. I'm confident we will play better and be coming back [to New Jersey] for Game 7."
That's the will. Now the Ducks need to find the way.