By Jay Greenberg in Newark, N.J.
So here the Devils are, back to where they were when they were going to Florida for Game 5, seemingly ready to impose their will on the Panthers.
"We feel like we have been playing well, we really do," said Marty Brodeur, "But twice we had tough games at 2-1 to get it 2-2 and now to get it 3-3.
"It's tough when you play a team that just hangs around."
Florida managed only 16 shots to New Jersey's 42 in 65:39 lopsided minutes of Game 6. Nevertheless, the time still hung heavier on the Devils' hands, just one flub away from being just another better team packing up for a long summer, trying to figure out what went wrong besides their luck.
"When you dominate so much, you think about the bad bounces that can happen," said Brodeur. "You saw how many shots they threw at me from the blue-line, hoping for a bounce.
"That's what you do in the playoffs."
As Andy Dufresne said before he tunneled out of Shawshank Prison, you either get busy living or get busy dying. The Panthers, power-play specialists who in Game 5 raised their level higher than apparently the Devils believed possible from the first four games, were still waiting for parole when Travis Zajac defused a bomb that threatened to blow up the Devils' season out of a crowd to the right of Brodeur and skated up ice.
Zajac's pass was behind Zach Parise, but the captain reached back, spun and got it ahead to Ilya Kovalchuk, two-on-two into the Florida zone. At the sight of one of the most dangerous open-ice skaters in hockey, Mike Weaver and Kris Versteeg panicked and chased Kovalchuk to the middle, leaving Zajac alone for the pass.
Zajac zipped the puck along the ice past Scott Clemmensen's left pad and the Devils had survived
, 3-2, against the ultimate survivors, to force Game 7 Thursday night in Florida.
"They don't quit," said Brodeur. "They believe in what they do and have their big guys do good things out there and they are very opportunistic.
"They are tough to play against. It's rewarding, we had to go through a lot to win this game."
Ultimately, the Devils were pulled through by their best players making plays at the right times, like the Devils' best players often did in the growingly distant memory of the three Stanley Cups won between 1995 and 2003.
"Ilya wants to win, first and foremost," said Zajac, who took the pass to prove it, climaxing an excruciating ordeal.
Steve Bernier's turnaround from a Ryan Carter defection Clemmensen couldn't control following a Scottie Upshall giveaway along the wall went right through the goalie to open the scoring. Then Upshall somehow managed to lose only the most dangerous man in the series, Kovalchuk, who took a pass from Parise for a slam-dunk on a power play.
At 2-0, it seemed well on its way to becoming another Game 4, a 4-0 New Jersey win.
But Stephen Weiss got wide of Bryce Salvador and Alexei Ponikarovsky didn't turn around quickly enough to see Versteeg, who snapped Weiss's pass out past Brodeur to put Florida on the board. Five minutes later, Kovalchuk tripped and turned over the puck in the Florida end and Brodeur botched Tyson Strachan's shot up the slot on a three-on-two. Sean Bergenheim tucked in the puck as it dribbled behind the goaltender.
The Devils were carrying all the play, and suddenly tied 2-2, still the weight of three straight first-round losses on their shoulders. But they got over the shock and forged forward on the high wire where they had put their season.
"Pete [Coach DeBoer] came in before the overtime and told us to stick with it and be patient," said Zajac. "We're a forechecking team, we wanted to get on them."
The Devils wanted to do the same thing in Game 5 and didn't, losing 3-0, putting themselves back behind the 8-ball. There, as Brodeur said, the Devils nevertheless remain, but Kovalchuk, scoring his third goal of the series and making the open-ice play that earned him a $100-million contract, seems fully untracked, and Zajac, who missed 67 games this season rehabbing a torn Achilles tear, was rewarded.
So were the fans, who experienced the franchise's first big moment since it moved to the Prudential Center.
"They are great," said Kovalchuk. "It wasn't easy for us and they were right behind us, we could feel it in the warm-up.
"They deserve to see more playoff games this year."
The Devils will deserve to play them, too, if this time they don't let up.Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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