EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Ask Martin Brodeur about the New Jersey Devils' 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup finals and his own superlative play, and it sounds as if he's talking about a preseason practice or a trip to the dry cleaners.
''I've been here before,'' he says, with the matter-of-fact tone of an athlete accustomed to being three victories away from winning hockey's biggest prize.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks haven't been here before, however, and that is the unknown factor going into Game 2 Thursday night. The Ducks talked confidently Wednesday of being more competitive than they were in their 3-0 loss Tuesday in Game 1, of knowing what they did wrong, of understanding what they must do right.
But they also know it's tough to predict how they will react to adversity, since they have experienced so little of it in these playoffs, never trailing in a series until now. They haven't seen goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere outplayed before, haven't dealt with the urgency of winning a game they probably can't afford to lose.
Their two most experienced players, Adam Oates and Steve Thomas, used the same word Wednesday to describe the Ducks' introduction to the series many wait an entire career to play. It wasn't a flattering one, either.
''I was a little overwhelmed,'' Thomas said. ''It was very intense, and we need to have the same kind of passion and emotion they have.''
Oates spent much of his career in the Eastern Conference, so he is familiar with the commitment the Devils bring to a suffocating defensive system that is neither fan-pleasing nor television-friendly but can be numbingly effective.
He also understands that the Ducks, who looked in Game 1 just like a team that hadn't absorbed a hit or thrown a check in 10 days, cannot hope to play that way again Thursday unless they plan to go home down 2-0.
''Maybe it was a little mental,'' Oates said of the Devils' superiority. ''Maybe we were a little overwhelmed. But we will bounce back.''
That frustration and confusion of which Oates and Thomas spoke is much like that felt by heavily favored Detroit and Dallas after they fell behind 2-0 to Anaheim in the Western Conference playoffs. Those teams didn't react positively, so there is no telling how a team with as little playoff history as the Ducks will respond if they suddenly find themselves down two games.
The numbers certainly are against the Mighty Ducks now: nearly 80 percent of the teams that win Game 1 go on to win the finals; the Devils have lost only once in 10 home playoff games this spring; and they have won the last seven playoff series they led 1-0, including two finals (1995, 2000).
''They're not an easy team to play against,'' the Ducks' Steve Rucchin said. ''It's definitely what happened with the other teams against us. So I guess now I know what it's like to have the shoe on the other foot.''
What's different is no Western Conference power that plays a system like the Devils do. The Minnesota Wild, eliminated in the minimum four games by the Ducks, are the closest thing to a New Jersey West the Wild's coach, Jacques Lemaire, won the Cup with the Devils in 1995, and they still incorporate some of his style and substance in their game.
But the Devils are more talented than the Wild, especially in goal, where Brodeur was widely viewed as the best in the game even before Patrick Roy retired. Brodeur handled everything the Ducks threw at him in Game 1, which wasn't very much, only 16 shots and not many good scoring chances, but he understands he will see much more in Game 2.
''There's room for improvement because we know they will be better,'' he said.
Ducks coach Mike Babcock's assessment: There must be improvement, and in a hurry.
''Now we're in a situation we haven't had,'' Babcock said. ''It's going to stretch us. We're going to find a way to react positively and get better.''
Of course, the Devils are aware the series could shift dramatically with an Anaheim victory that would provide the Ducks with a perceptible jolt of confidence and momentum as they head home for Games 3 and 4 at the Pond.
''It's a huge game,'' said Jeff Friesen, who scored two of the Devils' three goals in Game 1. ''You have to do what you have to do to win.''
''You don't go this far just to say it was a great experience,'' Brodeur said. ''They'll be trying everything they can to win a game here. Their job is to win only one game in this building, and they still have the opportunity to do that.''
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