Devils trust they can win by losing
This is how it works for the New Jersey Devils, reigning champions of the hockey world:
Win it all once more and they get to have a parade in a parking lot. Lose and they get to be ridiculed in the media capital of the world.
That’s how it goes when you play on a sports team that lives on the margin of New York. The Big Apple is always beyond your reach, but you can sure taste it when it goes sour.
If the Devils are anything less than they can be this spring, they will be certain to hear about it from those loud-mouth tabloids across the Hudson. When the subject is New Jersey, ridicule is never far away.
Or, excellence. Like the New York Islanders of an earlier time, these Devils might be a faux New York team, but they are a real power in the NHL. If the market in which they exist does not allow much room for error, that’s OK. The Devils enjoy living on the edge.
In fact, the Devils appear to prefer to flirt with disaster in the playoffs, just to keep things interesting.
‘For some reason, we like doing that,’ said Bobby Holik, the Devils’ mainstay on their checking line, following a practice Wednesday at Mellon Arena in advance of tonight’s Game 3. ‘It’s dangerous.’
The Devils are cruising well below the danger level, but signs are everywhere that they will soon reach it for a third-consecutive Stanley Cup series. After dominating the Penguins for four consecutive periods, the Devils had another of their predictably unexplicable collapses in Game 2 and – as they choose to see it, anyway – they have allowed Pittsburgh to even the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals at 1-1.
As New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur says: ‘Most of the time, we’re probably our own worst enemy.’
That probably will come as a surprise to the New York Rangers (to say nothing of the Penguins), but he does have a point. The Devils clearly are good enough to win the Stanley Cup again this year. So, how did they play badly enough to face elimination by the Toronto Maple Leafsâ¢
History, it is said, belongs to the victors. But not in hockey, a sport where losers can – and often do – claim a good hunk. Yes, the team that beat us was good, but, no, not that good that we couldn’t have beaten them if we weren’t so bad. Or, words to that effect.
In the case of the Devils, that might qualify as revisionist history, but it should not be discounted. You have to respect their talent based on their recent history of success. You also have to respect their ability to come back after putting themselves in seemingly desperate situations.
This year, in the first round of the playoffs, the Devils had the eighth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes down, 3-0, but still were forced to play six games to finish the job. In the second round, the seventh-seeded Leafs took a 3-2 lead in the series before the Devils came back to win Games 6 and 7. In 2000, the Devils trailed the Flyers, 3-1, in the conference finals before they rallied to win the series.
‘Sometimes, we make it difficult on ourselves,’ veteran defenseman Ken Daneyko said. ‘Nobody knows why.’
It’s no mystery how they escape these self-inflicted emergencies.
‘We feel we have the talent to win when we want to win,’ Holik said. ‘If we want to do it, we can do it.
‘We are so confident of our ability to overcome anything, it hurts us sometimes. We think we can win with our talent only.’
That sounds suspiciously like the other team in this conference finals. The Penguins don’t sound that way now, however. It took three rounds, but the Penguins finally have an opponent with a talent level so high, they cannot conceivably underrate it.
Which would give them an edge in this series, if it weren’t such a disadvantage. Confusedâ¢ When it’s all over, the losers will explain it all for us.
Bill Modoono is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.