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Doubting Devils

New Jersey doesn't display same confidence level as Kings

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Newark, N.J. -- Confidence without foundation quickly crumbles.

Until the New Jersey Devils get a win in this Stanley Cup final they are in danger of losing that most important of mental allies.

The Devils arrived here as a confident group, and why not?

The organization has been one of the league's most successful over the last 20 years, winning three Cups and now playing in their fifth.

The current team boasts Martin Brodeur, who has established himself as the greatest goalie of his era and arguably all-time. Lots to feel good about, right? Yet the question of whether the Devils are just an opponent in this Cup rather than a legit contender persists.

The Devils are here, but do they belong with the Kings? Game One's overtime loss to L.A. did nothing to establish New Jersey's Cup cred.

The Kings played their worst game of the post-season and still shuffled off the ice with a 2-1 overtime victory on the road.

We know what the Kings are, and that they came into this series as the, favourites, but the Devils remain the unknown. Sure, they're good and they won the Eastern Conference and they have lots of players to like. But can they be great? There was no need of that prior to this series, but if they're going to knock off the Kings they will need to raise their level. They know it and have said as much, but we've yet to see it.

Winnipeg native Travis Zajac shook his head with a tiny smile on his bearded and scraggly face as he admitted his Devils had not established themselves with their Game 1 effort.

"I think it's a really close matchup and we're equals, but we won't know until the next game because we didn't show ourselves in that game," said the Devils No. 1 centre and former gas jockey at his father's Henderson Highway Co-op station. "We were awful. We were nervous and didn't play our game. I think we'll be a lot better on Saturday. We're going to have to be."

The Devils, despite having a decided edge in Stanley Cup experience, pointed to jitters as a cause for their uneven start in this series. After having spent the bulk of this week around the two teams there has been a noticeable difference in their mien. The Devils carried a light whiff of "just glad to be here" prior to Game 1, while the Kings exhibited a cool confidence.

L.A. believes they should win this series. They Devils haven't convinced themselves that they can. They'll need a win to get their minds over that proverbial hump.

"We didn't play at our best," said Zajac. "We felt that, yeah, we missed an opportunity, because we were able to hang around against this team, you know, not playing our best game."

The Devils can take comfort in the fact they also lost Game 1 in the previous two series and bounced back to win Game 2.

"We didn't make tangible changes. We fixed what we felt went wrong. I think when I look back at our playoff trail, you know, one of the areas that's cropped up in every round is we've been a little tentative in the first game... kind of felt our way, and then jumped in with both feet in Game 2. Hopefully what we'll do here again," said Devils coach Pete DeBoer.

DeBoer gave his players a day away from the rink on Thursday while he and his coaches went over video looking for a more successful mix. The coach, however, didn't have a simple answer as to what went wrong.

"You want a nice boxed answer on how to fix it. It's not that easy. The game starts in your own end, breaking out clean, getting through the neutral zone with speed, putting the puck in the right place, running good forecheck routes, keeping pucks alive with pinches," said DeBoer. "There's no clean answer to it. We've got to be a little sharper in all our areas. The word is 'execution' for me. Our execution was poor in a lot of areas."

It's often said that a playoff series doesn't begin until a team loses a game at home, but with the Kings now 9-0 on the road in the post-season the theory loses some of its steam.

That this series doesn't get started until the Devils win a game might be more apropos. If they don't do it soon it just might be over before it begins.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

more NHL coverage on c2, 4

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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