The kids from New Jersey are one victory away from giving the old man the going-away gift he wanted: the Stanley Cup.
New Jersey's kiddie corps got goals from rookies John Madden and Brian Rafalski during a momentum-swinging flurry in the third period and the Devils beat the Dallas Stars 3-1 Monday night for a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Devils can claim the Cup for the second time in five years -- and for outgoing owner John McMullen -- by winning Game 5 Thursday night in the Meadowlands.
"Fifteen wins doesn't get you a Stanley Cup; 16 does," Rafalski said. "But we don't want this series to drag on any longer."
Neither does McMullen. Hours after deciding to sell the team to the YankeeNets conglomerate in mid-March, he made an unusual and very personal locker room plea to his players: Please win the Cup.
One more victory, and they will.
"We're not businessmen, we're players," goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "We're sorry Dr. McMullen has to sell the team. We want to win it for him, all of us do, but we can't get distracted from what we have to do."
Just as coach Larry Robinson predicted they could, the Devils stole into ever-confident Dallas to win both games against a veteran team that rarely loses at home and was coming off a road victory in Game 2.
The Stars have dug themselves a hole nearly as big as the Lone Star State. Only one team in 58 years, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs against Detroit, have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the Stanley Cup finals.
"But we know the last one is the hardest one to win," Robinson said.
Such a comeback can happen, of course; only two weeks ago, New Jersey rallied from just such a deficit to win the Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia. The Devils are 6-1 since starting that comeback, with four victories on the road.
"Having come through a series ourselves when we were down and seemingly out of it, we know it can happen," Robinson said.
Dallas had won 11 of its last 12 home playoff games before losing 2-1 in Game 3 Saturday, then lost a lead -- and, possibly, the Cup -- in its biggest game of the season Monday.
New Jersey's comeback from a 1-0 deficit -- Dallas was 11-0 when leading after two periods -- was remarkably swift and stunning and caused some of the Stars' towel-waving faithful to turn on their own team. Unless the Stars win Thursday, it was their last home game of the season, a predicament their fans clearly did not expect.
"I think we're all disappointed, but we've never done anything easy," Stars goaltender Ed Belfour said.
"We went from quite a high to quite a low in a short period of time," Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "To give it away that quickly ... the thing that's dominated is their ability to defend is better than ours right now, and they're turning them into offensive opportunities. All three goals were made off terrific plays."
The goal clearly deflated the Stars -- they had begun to dominate play after going without a shot for 12 minutes of the second period -- and re-energized the Devils, who are 9-2 in playoff road games.
Even an interference penalty on Colin White didn't disrupt the Devils.
Madden, stopped on a nearly identical play not long before, raced down the right side and sailed a shot by Belfour, who had shut out the Devils for the first 42:27 of play. Madden had a league-high six shorthanded goals during the season after scoring 23 shorthanded goals in college at Michigan.
"They don't play like rookies, they play like veterans," Devils defenseman Scott Stevens said.
Less than two minutes later, Rafalski, yet another rookie upstaging the Stars' cast of highly paid and long-productive veterans, sealed it. He skated to the puck in the neutral zone and got loose on a breakaway to beat Belfour at 6:08.
"I saw some space behind (defenseman) Sergei Zubov and just took off," said Rafalski, who played in Europe the last four seasons and made it to the Finnish finals last spring.
In Game 2, Rafalski made a couple of defensive mistakes that led to goals by Brett Hull and a 2-1 Stars victory but, he said, "You've got to put it behind you. They only won one game."
The Stars were fined $10,000 Monday by the NHL for not showing up for media interviews. Hitchcock must be wondering if fines aren't warranted for not showing up for the biggest game of the season.
|Devils rookie John Madden blasts the game winner past the Stars' Ed Belfour.(AP)|
"I thought we could have bought us some time with the two days off, but they've got the momentum now," Hitchcock said. "You go from such a level of confidence to `Boom!'"
New Jersey had been almost impenetrable on the power play for the entire playoffs -- allowing four goals in 59 chances and killing off three earlier in the game -- until Nieuwendyk came out of his scoring slump.
Nieuwendyk, scoreless for five games since linemate Jamie Langenbrunner got hurt, got free in the crease to put a backhander by Brodeur off Darryl Sydor's slap shot from the left circle at 18:02 of the third.
But while Nieuwendyk came out of his slump, the Stars' other big names, including Hull and Mike Modano, again were shut out by Brodeur, who had an eventful night in goal despite facing only 17 shots.
Just as the NHL worried, TV ratings for the finals are low -- about one-third those for Sunday's Blazers-Lakers NBA game -- and the scoring is even lower in this series for two teams that have perfected the neutral zone trap.
Still, the last two games, while featuring only seven goals, have been surprisingly up-and-down, with lots of flurries -- the biggest of all by New Jersey.