EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If you've ever played a team sport, you should be a fan of the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils are on the brink of winning their first Stanley Cup championship. Going into Game 4 tonight at the Meadowlands Arena, they are on the verge of sweeping the offensively talented Detroit Red Wings.
They are doing it by proving the whole is better than any of its parts.
"I don't mind that people criticize our style," said New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire. "They're entitled to say it. But I know my players have a lot of fun playing like this. They feel they are part, an important part, of the game. . . . Everyone is part of the team. There's not too many teams that can say that."
Coaches preach that hard work can beat talent, and the Devils are proving it. They are proving it so well that they have the Red Wings -- the NHL's best team in the regular season, a team that finished 33-11-4 in the Western Conference, while going 10-7-1 against teams that finished over .500 -- in disarray.
Yesterday, Detroit's defensive leader, Paul Coffey, actually said the Red Wings have to "play like New Jersey" if they want to win.
Until yesterday, the Red Wings were slow to give the Devils credit for what has happened in this best-of-seven series.
Game 1, the Red Wings lost, 2-1, and said they had come out flat. In Game 2, Detroit lost, 4-2, and said it lost its focus after the Devils overcame two one-goal deficits. And after losing, 5-2, in Game 3, coach Scotty Bowman said his team had "embarrassed and humiliated" him by not competing.
But yesterday, that changed.
"They are really finely tuned," said Detroit captain Steve Yzerman. "All four of their forward lines are really effective. They take out [one player] and put in [another] and it makes no difference. They all play to the system. Their goalie hasn't had to do anything. . . . As a group they've been exceptional."
When the Red Wings approach the New Jersey zone, the Devils split the ice, forcing play down the side, along the boards, taking away the majority of good shots. Once play reaches their zone, the Devils always have two men on the puck. And when they get in trouble, they clear it into the neutral zone and chase.
"They never put themselves in a bad position," said Yzerman. "Somehow, in every series they have found a way to neutralize the opposing team's top offensive hockey players, and it has been no different with our club.
"And when they get breaks, they work for their own chances and create their own offensive opportunities. They do whatever they have to to win and they should be given a lot of credit for that."
And Lemaire's Devils are playing their physically demanding, never-relenting, in-your-face style at the most pressure-filled time the year and in the face of adversity greater than just that provided by Detroit.
They have been accused of ruining the game with their defensive style, despite the fact that this so-called defensive team is leading the playoffs in goals with 62 to Detroit's 59.
And they are dominating despite persistent rumors that owner John McMullen may pack the team up and move it to Nashville, Tenn., later this summer if he can't work out a better lease in New Jersey.
"We talked about Nashville before the playoffs started," said Bruce Driver, who has been a Devil since the team came to New Jersey in 1982 from Denver.
"But in the playoffs we haven't talked about Nashville. . . . We know how hard it is to get here and be in this position. When this is over, if the franchise moves, then I'll be sad. But I can't think about it right now."
Lemaire, who took over last season after the Devils had seen four coaches come and go in four years, said yesterday that his players are at their peak.
"You get a team and you work with them and you tell them things they have to do to win and you feel they are at their best sometimes for a game or two and then they drop," he said. "Sometimes, during the regular season I talked to them and, if you asked them what I said, they wouldn't know. But now they are listening a little more.
"To get them where they are right now, it takes time. It takes players who want to do it, who listen and look in the same direction and take the same direction and feel the same thing. It is an amazing thing. If we, right now, took a month off and came back, we wouldn't be like this, I'm sure."
And it's unfair, said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, to criticize the style of play that got them here.
"The fact is the Devils are putting on an amazing display of teamwork," said Bettman. "I think it's wrong to say it's bad because it limits another team's offensive display. I think they should be lauded for their efforts. You may like a more offensive style, but I think the criticism they've been getting is a little harsh."
Bettman added, however, that next year there may be rule changes designed to eliminate the clutching and grabbing in the neutral zone that slows an offense.
Whatever. For now, all the Devils can think about is Game 4 and what it will mean if hard work can beat talent one more time.
If the Detroit Red Wings lose tonight, it will be the seventh Stanley Cup final series sweep that Scotty Bowman (above) has been involved in as a head coach. Here are the other six:
1992: Bowman's Pittsburgh Penguins defeated Chicago.
1977: Bowman's Montreal Canadiens defeated Boston.
1976: Bowman's Canadiens defeated Philadelphia.
1970: Boston defeated Bowman's St. Louis Blues.
1969: Montreal defeated Bowman's Blues.
1968: Montreal defeated Bowman's Blues.