By Jay Greenberg in Newark, N.J.
It was a commonly held belief in the Devils' locker room that there had been nothing extraordinary in their effort in the first three games against the Panthers.
"Everyone understands the situation we are in," said Devils captain Zach Parise Thursday morning. "We have played really well at times of the series and average at times.
"We can't play average and beat these guys and we understand that."
The Panthers, cobbled together in just one summer by new general manager Dale Tallon to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 tries, are the mean in today's capped NHL. Starless, hard working and efficient, they came to Game 4 leading 2-1 by making the Devils pay for playing the meanies in the series.
The highest (regular-season) penalty-killing percentage in history had evaporated into Florida's conversion of six of ten power play opportunities.
That is so extraordinary, it figures to be unsustainable should the Devils, a 102-point team in the NHL's best division, get their PK groove back and continue to push the envelope at even strength. They have not only the two best players in the series, but by far the most accomplished one and, when all three played like they can in Game 4 Thursday night, reality seemed to set in.
Parise had five hits and a tip-in off a Marek Zidlicky power-play point shot on the game's first goal. Ilya Kovalchuk ripped a third-period power play over Scott Clemmensen's stick side.
Marty Brodeur, yanked in Game 3 after coughing up a 3-0 lead, broke Patrick Roy's career playoff shutout mark with No. 24 as the Devils had their way, 4-0.
"We all played well," said Parise. "And we got contributions from the guys we need to put the puck in the net."
Kovalchuk, with one goal in the first three games, on an average of just two shots per contest, had been defended by Devils head coach Peter DeBoer Thursday morning, but of course when a scorer isn't scoring and his team isn't winning, the inevitable question becomes much more telling than any answer. Thus, the weight came off Kovalchuk's shoulder with the double elbow pump he did after the puck went in.
"It was a big breakthrough," admitted DeBoer. "We had some from some different guys tonight.
"They have all been working hard and there has been some frustration earlier in the series. I think we are past that."
Parise took it as a personal mission to get the Devils past that. He said he could feel the relief when they killed their first penalty, and that, of course, was big. But never mind the Devils blew a too-much, too-soon, three-goal lead in Game 3. A very different kind of Game 4 demanded they break the scoreless tie in the second period.
Parise redirected a Travis Zajac redirection of Marek Zidlicky's point drive and all the captain's hard work finally was being rewarded.
"He's the heartbeat of our team he sets the tone for us," said DeBoer. "He leads and everyone follows.
"When your captain is your hardest working payer, he drags people with him. It's a great situation to be in as a coach."
So is having one of the game's few game breakers, but only when he is breaking games. "It's always good to score, sure," smiled Kovalchuk, but especially so, when this you have lost 10 of the scant 12 NHL playoff games you have played over 12 NHL seasons.
"When you have your top player ...," started Parise, before catching himself from joining the pile on Kovalchuk.
"He has been playing good, but I think he feels a lot of responsibility and it can get stressful when things aren't going your way. I'm sure, for him, it was a great feeling.
"And next game, I think he will have a little extra jump. There is going to be a spotlight on him and he does a great job of handling it."
So, as expected, did Brodeur, whose most sustained work was in preserving the shutout in the third period. Nevertheless, at 1-0 he made a big pad save on Kris Versteeg off a two-on-one at and looked much more confident -- and confidence-inspiring -- than he had appeared in a shortened night of work 48 hours earlier.
"That was vintage Brodeur," said DeBoer. "We have come to expect that of him."
The Devils retain the expectations of their salad days, never mind three straight first-round defeats over four playoffs. They aren't as deep as they were, but they still are the more talented club in this series, so you could see them exhaling Thursday night when they finally played like it from start to finish.
Follow Jay Greenberg on Twitter @scribejg
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