Bruce Bennett/Associated Press file photo
Bruce Bennett/Associated Press file photo
NEWARK, N.J. – There was a time when home-ice advantage wasn’t the New Jersey Devils’ best friend.
If either the rival Rangers or Flyers were in New Jersey, there would be as many New York or Philadelphia jerseys in the crowd as Devils’ colors.
Not anymore, at least not in the playoffs this year.
The Devils have been tough at the Prudential Center, known as the “The Rock,” and they need one more big effort Saturday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final to keep their championship dreams alive and prevent the Los Angeles Kings from capturing their first NHL title since coming into the league in 1967.
It’s a tough task. The Kings haven’t lost on the road since the playoffs started two months ago. They are 10-0, including two overtime wins here in Games 1 and 2.
A bounce or two here or there, and New Jersey might be the one leading the best-of-7 series 3-1.
That’s wishful thinking for Devils fans. The reality is New Jersey has some momentum coming off a 3-1 win on Wednesday night, and they need to keep winning or else.
New Jersey is 6-4 in the playoffs here after posting a 24-13-4 mark in the regular season. It’s gotten their fans behind them like never before.
“We’re winning, that’s the bottom line,” Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said of the fan support. “I think we’ve played hard and got some success. It’s hard when you don’t win for our fans to be involved and do what they’d like to do, especially the last few years when we played the Rangers and Flyers (in the postseason). It’s tough in this area to play some rivals if you don’t have success, their fans take over the building. But we got the success this year, and that made a big difference why we feel a lot more comfortable playing.”
Coming into this season, the Devils had posted a 3-7 postseason mark at “The Rock,” which opened for the 2007-08 season.
Veteran defenseman Andy Greene said the Devils are just a better team overall this season.
“I think going into the playoffs we were playing good hockey,” Greene said. “The few years before that, I don’t want to say we stumbled into the playoffs, but we probably weren’t where we needed to be heading into the playoffs. We’ve been playing the right way, and the crowd has been great. We’re feeling their energy and feeding off it. It’s been great.”
It’s hard to say whether the Kings notice the opposing crowd. They won all three games in Vancouver in the first round, two in St. Louis in the second and three in Phoenix in the third. They are 15-3 overall, with all three losses coming in potential series-clinching Game 4s at home.
Now they get another chance to win on the road. And this one will be the biggest of all for a franchise that had only made the Cup final once before: 1993, losing to Montreal in five games.
Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, who might be the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, actually was funny when asked if he was familiar with the Prudential Center after two games.
“No, it’s like any arena,” he said. “You’ve got about 18,000 people that want you to lose no matter where you go.”
Forward Justin Williams said the team isn’t really focused on the arena – just the task at hand and what the players have to do to accomplish it. He said thinking about winning the Cup now would be a distraction, and that might have been one of the problems the team encountered in Game 4 on Wednesday.
Williams is aware of the fans.
“You absolutely notice crowds,” he said. “Crowds give you energy. They basically carry the momentum in the games sometimes. We’ve done a good job of handling it and not letting it affect us. I think crowds aren’t going to take you out of a game, but they are going to encourage you a little bit and get you revved up.”
The odds certainly are against the Devils making a comeback. Only one NHL team has rallied from an 0-3 deficit in the finals to win. That was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer had an interesting take on his team’s plight.
“You know it’s going to happen again,” he said. “So why not us? I think that’s the approach. You’re not going to go 200 years without someone else doing it. So it’s been long enough, it might as well be us.”
The Kings also have an interesting take on their 3-1 lead.
“This series, we could easily be down,” Williams said. “We haven’t played our best hockey. We know that in our room. That’s obviously an advantage for us that we know we can be better in all facets of the game, not one little thing. We can be a lot better. We haven’t shown them exactly what we are all about. That’s disheartening for us. The encouraging thing is we are up 3-1.”
If a sixth game is necessary, it will be played on Monday night in Los Angeles. A deciding seventh game would be played Wednesday in New Jersey, if necessary.
Until then, it’s now or never in Newark for the home team.