RALEIGH, N.C. – Everything seemed to line up against the New Jersey Devils to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
They drew one of the NHL’s hottest teams down the stretch for their first-round series, a Carolina club that all but owned them during the regular season.
They lost injured captain Jamie Langenbrunner early on for multiple games. And then they found themselves once again in overtime against a Hurricanes team they’d never beaten in extra time during the playoffs.
My, have things changed.
The Devils are halfway toward making it out of the first round, turning a fortunate bounce in OT into a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Hurricanes with Game 4 set for Tuesday night.
“It was important to come in here and play well, which we did – we played a real good road game, and we found a way to win it,” coach Brent Sutter said Monday. “That’s what playoff hockey’s about this time of year. You’ve got to find ways to win. And we found a way last night, as they did in New Jersey.
“We had to find a way to get one back, and we got that one back last night in our first game (in Raleigh),” he added. “And now we’ve got to get focused for Game 4.”
The Devils can take complete control of the tight series with another victory. They’ve consistently skated at a championship level and have yet to trail in regulation. Two of the three games have been won in overtime by the road team, with the breaks generally evening themselves out.
“You knew it was going to be tight, you knew it was going to be a hard-fought series, and that’s what it is,” Sutter said.
Travis Zajac turned the tables on the Hurricanes by ending Game 3 when the rebound of his shot bounced right back to his stick. He flipped the puck over sprawled Carolina goaltender Cam Ward about five minutes into the OT to deliver a 3-2 victory – and the Devils’ first post-season overtime win against the Hurricanes in six tries.
They’ve also exceeded the single win they had in last year’s first-round flop against the New York Rangers, but clearly, they’re nowhere near satisfied with that.
“We’ve got to continue to play the way we’ve been playing, and not worry about anything else, forget the games that have happened and worry about tomorrow – just come out with the same type of intensity, and take it from there,” Zajac said.
Meanwhile, things are starting to look a bit bleak for the Hurricanes.
After winning nine in a row late in the regular season, they’ve dropped four of five and haven’t led in regulation in any of those five contests. The only time in this series that they were up on the scoreboard came in overtime of Game 2 when defenceman Tim Gleason won it with an eyes-closed blast that got past a screened Martin Brodeur.
“That concept’s more to (the Devils’) liking, no question,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “We’d love to give (taking a lead) a try, but you have to be prepared in these games, and that really is an important mental concept for our team, to be ready to play in those games.”
One reason for those offensive struggles has been the power play, which was so productive against the Devils during the regular season.
The Hurricanes scored on seven of their 16 chances during the season. But in this series, they’re just 1-of-10 with the man advantage – a stretch of difficulty perhaps best represented by the 52 seconds of a 5-on-3 situation they wasted late in the second period of Game 3.
They managed only one shot on net during that span – Eric Staal’s wrister from close range that Brodeur stuffed – and followed that by putting only one more puck on the NHL’s winningest goalie during the 1:08 of single-man advantage that followed. Fortunately for them, Chad LaRose was there to bail them out, tying it on an even-strength deflection moments after the second penalty expired.
“We’ve just got to stay positive and not get frustrated,” top-line forward Tuomo Ruutu said. “They’ve got good penalty-killing. … If you get frustrated, you start doing something else that you haven’t done the whole year, and it’s not good.
“We’ve just got to do what we do best: Keep it simple, shoot the puck and I think it’s going to come from there.”
They’ll have to, if the Hurricanes hope to reverse a nagging trend from their brief history here.
Since moving to Raleigh in 1999, they’ve never won a playoff series in which they didn’t start out with home-ice advantage – and they’ve never lost a series in which they started out at home.
But if nothing else, at least they can tap into their experience of rallying from 2-1 series deficits. That’s happened four times since the move from Hartford, and in three of those they came back to advance to the next round – including twice during the 2006 Stanley Cup run.
“We’re not do-or-die yet, but it’s a big game, no question,” Staal said. “We know we’re not out of it yet.”