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Savran: Devils' superiority can come and go

Saturday, May 19, 2001

It was quite beautiful to watch, actually. In the way the complex cutting of a diamond is beautiful. Or quadruple-bypass surgery is beautiful. The surgical precision with which the New Jersey Devils dissected the Penguins Thursday was the execution (the perfect word given the circumstances) of a computer-calibrated game plan. It was accomplished with assembly line efficiency, prison-gray stark in its finality.

Fans tend to view games myopically, seeing only the team they follow or want to win.

People on the other bench are being paid to do the things you don't want them to: Like playing as perfect a hockey game as you don't ever want to see again this series. Which won't go past five games if the Devils do it again this afternoon. My feeling before this conference final was and still is -- if the Devils play their "A" hockey, they will win this series. And the next one against either the St. Louis Lambs or the Colorado Sacrificials.

That's how good I think Lou and Larry's guys are.

But that remains the largest of ifs. They have had a great deal of difficulty bringing their "A" game for extended periods of time.

They rang up a 3-0 series lead on Carolina before they reached over and hit the snooze alarm, only to awaken in time for Game 6. But truth be told, "B" hockey is good enough to calm Carolina.

The Devils were extremely fortunate to even be in a sixth game of their second-round against Toronto, let alone win it. But when their shoulder blades were mashed against the wall, the Devils responded by dusting off that "A" game just in the nick of time. As they did here in Game 3.

What the Devils gained Thursday wasn't as much mathematical as it was psychological.

Aside from the series lead, what they regained was their equilibrium. They were angry over their relapse in the second period of Game 2. They believe they "gave" that game to the Penguins.

That belief has some shreds of truth, although it doesn't give the Penguins proper credit for their proactive posture that turned around Game 2. But whatever the perspective, the players in red Jerseys were disgusted with themselves, as they have been numerous times this spring.

And believing, as all teams do, that their fate rests solely with how they perform, they used that dissatisfaction as motivation for Game 3. The elusive "A" game, darting in and out of the shadows this spring, returned.

But what if it hadn't. What if the Devils had reached back, as they had for Game 6 in Carolina and Toronto, or when they were down 1-3 against the Flyers in Eastern Conference final last year, and came up empty?

What if they had turned the spigot back to the on position, only to get slow-motion drips of brown, rusty water?

New Jersey still would have a team with a ton of talent, but with an ounce of confidence.

That's what the Penguins lost and the Devils won in Game 3.

Although it's always risky business to rely on a reserve generator during a power outage, New Jersey discovered its still worked. The Devils regained the lead in this series, but more important, they regained their confidence ... their belief that they are the better team.

And that's a huge factor in any series.

So totally dominant were the Devils in Game 3, the Penguins are now the ones left with the watery confidence, groping for any path that will lead them through the maze. Deep down, wondering whether they're good enough.

That's how quickly it changes in the playoffs. That's what was won and lost Thursday night.

Some blame the Penguins' lousy home record (3-4) on Ivan Hlinka's apparent unwillingness to match lines. How then does that explain their excellent (6-3) mark on the road, where you can't match lines because the home teams get the last change? Further, on the two goals that got them back into Game 2, one was a short-hander, the other came after a bad line change which resulted in a mongrel grouping on the ice. So much for the science of matching lines.

The bottom line is this: The Devils are deeper. And better. And if they play their "A" game, they'll win the series.

But that's the issue, is it not? They haven't played that "A" game consistently ... just often enough to advance. So just because they had it for Game 3 doesn't mean it will be present today. To take advantage of Jersey's sporadic play, and to counteract Devils depth, the Penguins' stars must be stars. So far they haven't been.

Goals from a Morozov or a Corbet are most welcome. But they can't win this series. Lemieux and Jagr can.

The Devils used introspection after Game 2 as a catapult for Game 3. Will the Penguins be able to use their missing-in-action performance in that very same game as motivation for today?

Only the series, and their dreams, hang, precariously, in the balance.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" weeknights at 6:30 on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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