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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Devils' Grit Leaves the Ducks Grasping

June 06, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Devils forgot finesse and tic-tac-toe passing plays Thursday and played with a scrappiness that was evident in the raw, red stitches on John Madden's face and the scrapes on nearly every player's elbows and knees.

Playing with the mentality of junkyard dogs and sustaining a sense of urgency through bounces strange but true, the Devils taught the Mighty Ducks a lesson about character and perseverance. They also showed the Ducks how to channel frustration into the will to push forward, even if it's toward an outcome that's uncertain.

With a haphazard 6-3 loss to the Devils at a roaring, rocking Continental Airlines Arena, the Ducks reduced their season to one game. Lose Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond, and their remarkable odyssey to the Stanley Cup finals will be over and they'll have to watch the Devils embrace Lord Stanley's prize. Win Saturday, and they get another chance to win the Cup, Monday at New Jersey.

Play like they did Thursday, when they made poor decisions defensively and caved in under the Devils' pressure, and they won't win a summer beer league championship.

"We lost our calm a bit, and in a way we should never do, especially with the title so close," forward Marc Chouinard said. "We were frustrated with some calls. But they played good, no doubt about it....

"The first 10 minutes we played very well. We had the start we wanted. We skated and we scored the first goal and they took it to us a bit. They started to get a few good bounces and we didn't respond."

They rebounded twice, pulling even after the Devils built a 2-1 lead and again tying the game at 3. But starting with Jay Pandolfo's goal at 9:02 of the second period, which deflected off his right foot and was ruled legal because he didn't make a distinct kicking motion, the Ducks had no answers left.

They simply stopped competing, losing the fire that has helped propel them to the finals, a new level for them but a familiar one for the Devils in their third finals in four seasons.

"We had a pretty good first period," Duck defenseman Niclas Havelid said, "but in the second we started to fall back. We didn't move the puck as normal. On a couple of goals, they got the right bounces.

"They played a good game. They worked hard -- they worked harder than us and they managed the puck good."

The Devils, fortified by the return of burly winger Turner Stevenson from the groin injury that knocked him out of the lineup after the sixth game of their Eastern Conference series against Ottawa, went over, under, around and through the Ducks. They hustled and were quicker on the puck, banging bodies while the Ducks banged their heads against the wall.

"We wanted to get the puck to the net and get some traffic," said Brian Gionta, the diminutive New Jersey winger. "We got some crazy bounces, and that's not going to happen every night. But that's why you've got to put the puck on net. Those things can happen."

Although the Devils and Ducks are similar in size, the Devils played far bigger Thursday and with a muscular swagger.

"You've got to give credit to a guy like Turner Stevenson," New Jersey center Scott Gomez said. "He was hitting everything in sight. He was a real spark for us.

"Both teams play such a great system and so disciplined, and then you get a game like this. I always said if the score opens up, we can open up the game, too."

And close it down. "We just didn't get down, no matter what happened," Pandolfo said. "We're a veteran team. We put pressure on them. I think in Anaheim [where the Devils lost Games 3 and 4] we sat back too much."

On the rare occasions Coach Pat Burns loosens the reins, the Devils have the speed to play with anyone. Especially against a defense like the Ducks' was Thursday, confused and, perhaps, overworked. Vitaly Vishnevski, victim of a stiff hit that dazed him in Game 5, played little in the first two periods, increasing the burden on the Ducks' other five defensemen.

None cited fatigue as an excuse, which is noble. But the alternative is a lack of heart and willingness to sacrifice, and if they've lost those forces, they're surely in trouble.

"They started beating us to pucks," Duck winger Steve Thomas said. "They got people in on the forecheck and we didn't hold people up, and that made it difficult on our defense."

The Devils made it difficult enough that the Ducks don't need to complicate matters by their own failures.

"We're not going to give it to them," Chouinard said. "We're going to go back to Anaheim and hopefully come back here for a seventh game."

Finally, Coach Mike Babcock is right. They must regard their next game as their most important of the season, or it will be their last. Thomas, 39 and in his first Cup final of a 19-year career, isn't ready to go gently into that good summer.

"We're confident we can win Game 6 in our building and come back here," Thomas said, "and you never know what's going to happen in a Game 7.... When you win championships you have to go through adversity."

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