NEWARK, NJ – No one had ever seen anything like it.
Long after the final buzzer ended, there was a zombie-like haze amongst the players and the coaches.
How could everything change in one minute and twenty seconds? How could home-ice advantage and a raucous crowd just melt away in 80 ticks of a clock? How did the Carolina Hurricanes win game seven?
“It was right there,” Colin White said. “We were that close.”
Eric Staal gained a burst of speed out of the neutral zone and fired a shot that slipped between Martin Brodeur’s right arm and leg pad, the “seven hole” as he described it, into the net for the series winning goal with less than 30 seconds on the clock.
“I was in good position,” Brodeur said. “But he made a better shot and beat me.”
Head coach Brent Sutter felt the play broke down before the puck got anywhere near Brodeur.
“They were able to come through the neutral-zone with speed, which is something we were able to contain all night,” Sutter said.
Moments earlier, Jussi Jokenin, the hero of game four’s last second goal, tied the game with a shot from the right side of the net underneath Brodeur while he slid to the post.
“We got caught out there not able to get the puck out of the zone,” captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. “We got caught running around out there at the end.”
The Prudential Center crowd was silent, as if watching in slow motion an unreal nightmare playing out in front of them.
New Jersey never gives up a lead after being ahead going into the third period. The only time it happened in the regular season was at home, against the Hurricanes.
The Devils had dominated the game, controlling the puck with big hits and smart passing. Brian Rolston converted on the power play, scoring what was thought to be the game winning goal at 8:47 of the second period.
Carolina overloaded the right side of the ice, following Brian Gionta carrying the puck into the offensive zone. Gionta made a cross-ice pass to Rolston, who skated into the zone untouched and rifled a one-timer into the top left corner of the net.
At the other end of the special-teams spectrum, the Devils killed off all five penalties called against them, including a lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity in the second period.
All was going to plan for New Jersey, until the final 80 seconds of the game. With the team scrambling to cover assignments and willing to play overtime after Jokinen’s goal, the Devils played not to lose, while the Hurricanes played to win.
“We were on our heels too much the last few minutes trying to protect the lead,” Sutter said.
Winning a playoff series is not only about playing quality sixty-minutes, but also being lucky and taking advantage when luck comes your way.
“When we’ve won Cups, when we’ve gone pretty far into the playoffs, we’ve gotten some bounces,” John Madden said. “Things turned in our favor very quickly too. Shorthanded goals late in a period, bounces that come off the glass right in front of the net, different things, goalies mishandling a puck. We didn’t get anything. Everything we got, we earned.”
It seemed no one had learned from Jokinen’s goal with .02 seconds remaining in game four that the ‘Canes would attack for all 60 minutes of the game. They were not willing to take the last moments of regulation off and prepare for overtime, as there was still time in the third period to win it.
That attitude ended up being the difference between Carolina booking travel plans to Boston and the Devils booking tee times.
“This is as tough of a loss as you could possibly have,” Sutter said.