DALLAS -- The New Jersey Devils put themselves in this enviable position by doing something no NHL team had done before.
The Dallas Stars can get themselves out of this inconceivable predicament by doing something only one team has done before.
Dallas' 3-1 loss Monday in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals, the result of three New Jersey goals in a breathtakingly short span of 3:41 of the third period, forces the Stars to mount one of the great comebacks in Cup history to retain their title.
No team in 58 years, or since the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled it off against Detroit in 1942, has rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the finals. If the Devils can win Game 5 Thursday night on home ice, it's all over.
''I don't think we would have ever thought we would be in this situation, especially when it was 1-1 and we were coming home,'' Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher said Tuesday. ''I think to lose both games on our ice is obviously something we didn't expect. We were hoping to be up 3-1 right now.''
Now, for the Stars, it's one and be done -- one loss, and their season is over. One title, and their championship run is over.
This isn't how defending champions are supposed to play in the Stanley Cup finals, not at all. The last four defending champs to return to the finals all repeated, and only one lost as many as one game.
''Right now, we have to ask ourselves: How much do we want to keep playing hockey?'' Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said.
The Devils, trying to become the first Eastern Conference champion to win the Cup since they did in 1995, have been clearly superior to the Stars even while playing a very Dallas-like style. They've clamped down in the neutral zone, relied on excellent goaltending, let the defense force the offense and buried the good shots when they got them.
Still, the Devils proved only a series ago that overcoming such a formidable obstacle can be accomplished. They became the first team since the 1967 expansion to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a conference final by overhauling Philadelphia.
''We are the living proof that you are able to come back 3-1 in a series, and I think that really scares us a little bit because we did it to the Flyers,'' Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur said. ''They never saw us coming. Now we are in a situation that it could happen to us.''
However, there seems to be one difference between that series and this one.
Against Philadelphia, the Devils were convinced they were the superior team. On Monday, after failing to hold a 1-0 lead on home ice in the third period, the Stars had the body language of a team uncertain if it can win. Even Hitchcock seem awed at how well the Devils are playing.
''We had the heart ripped out of us,'' Hitchcock said.
Maybe, the legs, too.
The Stars are one of the NHL's oldest teams, with veterans such as the 40-year-old Guy Carbonneau, Brett Hull, Mike Keane, Dave Manson, Sylvain Cote and half a dozen others. Many have played more than 200 games the last two seasons, many of those games two months after the rest of the league was done playing.
Asked if the Stars were running out of gas against a younger, more energized team, Hitchcock said, ''Don't even go there.''
Still, two of the Devils' Game 4 goals came from rookies, defenseman Brian Rafalski and John Madden, and rookie Scott Gomez made immense contributions at both ends.
As even Hitchcock knows, it makes no difference how experienced a player is if his legs can't get him where others can go.
''We have played 200-something games, but we have made a lot of people crack and forced a lot of people out of their element,'' Hitchcock said. ''We have gotten forced out of our element in this series. And we need to get back and stay in it.''
Regaining that element in a hostile arena that is eagerly anticipating a Stanley Cup celebration Thursday night won't be easy at all, not with the Devils rolling along with a 6-1 record and four road victories since they trailed Philadelphia 3-1.
''Believe me, there is a feeling in your stomach when you are down 3-1 or you are facing closure that always sits there,'' Hitchcock said. ''It is very nerve-wracking. But our issue is different. We did it to ourselves, and those are correctable.''
But did the Stars wait until too late to reach for the Wite-Out?
No matter, coach Larry Robinson is warning his team that just as he told them before the series began not to listen to the forecasts of doom, the Devils shouldn't listen now to those already planning their victory party.
''When you are in this position, you know you are going to have thousands of people telling you how great you are and how you are going to walk around with the Cup the next game and so on,'' Robinson said. ''And that has got to be the furthest thing from your mind. You have to deal with reality, and reality is we've still got to win another game. And it is probably the hardest one to win.''
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