With the team on the brink of elimination, every fan of the New Jersey Devils around the world is anxious for what will happen in Game 6. The Devils could conceivably win Game 6 and force a Game 7. The Devils could conceivably lose and leave everyone disappointed. The game itself is expected to be a tight checking affair and in those games, almost anything can happen. In a regular season game, the tension grows as the games go on. But because it's the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the tension already exists days before the game even happens.
Therefore, the fans are motivated for tonight's game. It will likely be stressful. It will likely be worrisome. It will likely be absolutely agonizing to watch at times. Emotions will be running high and that's just for the people who will just follow the game. We desire to see what will happen: whether the Devils choose death or glory.
But what about the players themselves? The people who will have an actual impact about what happens in Game 6? A pivotal playoff game or even an elimination game by itself isn't enough to motivate a player. I don't think you could tell me with a straight face that the Devils' performance against Florida in Game 5 was befitting of the situation. The same could be said for Game 5 in 2010, the last elimination game that involved the Devils. The image of Jamie Langenbrunner moping and lollygagging throughout the game stood out to me then and stands out to me now. (Aside: That was a player dogging it. There's your metric for what it means to dog. Adjust your views accordingly.) Right there, those are two examples where a big situation came up in the playoffs and the Devils didn't play to the level they really should have.
To that end, I've listed at least one reason why each individual Devil should be motivated for this game from my standpoint. I know full well the players aren't reading this. I admit I wouldn't know how to feel if they were. Yet, if they need another reason to treat this game as an important game, to get fired up, and to get into the mindset necessary to win this hockey game, then here's what I think that reason should be. I've also included additional commentary for each player heading into Game 6. All of this comes after the jump.
Zach Parise: Do it for your own future. His performance as a player in Games 1 through 4 were good. Very good, in fact. One could argue great. However, his performance as a leader leaves a lot to be desired. We hear about how the team needs to be more disciplined, yet they keep taking more penalties. We were told the team was ready before Game 5, and after the game, Parise was sheepishly saying they were outworked. As a player, I expect Parise to be just fine tonight. I'm not worried about that. If Parise wants to solidify his reputation as a leader, then having the team get their acts together and leading by example tonight would really help. Plus, Parise's playing for a contract. Playoff success would most definitely allow him to demand more this summer than he would with a first round exit.
Ilya Kovalchuk: Do it to continue to prove yourself. This seems rather strange, but I don't know how else to put it. Kovalchuk finished fifth in the league in scoring, third in shots on net, and has essentially done what has been asked of him all season long including moving away from his natural position and successfully killing penalties. Yet, this is not enough. He isn't dominating the Panthers nor is he breaking through their defense like a hot knife through butter. He isn't as productive, even though he has as many goals as Parise and only one fewer point than Travis Zajac. He must be injured or dogging it or whatever. It's almost as if he's already the designated scapegoat - and the series isn't even over yet. Kovalchuk has had a huge season for New Jersey and it appears the only way the critics can finally shut their mouths (or, more likely, move the goalposts) is if he performs well tonight. He's done everything else, now it's time to overcome this obstacle as well.
Travis Zajac: Do it so you can to continue his comeback after a mostly-lost season due to injury. Zajac missed almost three months of the season due to an injury in the offseason. He came back, only for a doctor to determine that he came back too soon and he needed to be shut down until he was properly healed. Zajac returned to the lineup late in the season. He's definitely got the rust off now and he has been useful in this series, if only for reliably winning most faceoffs. At the same time, I feel we haven't seen the same Zajac who was the team's definitive top center. I see it in flashes, but I want more. And the only way for that to happen is to keep playing. And that's only going to happen with a win tonight.
Patrik Elias: Do it because you're the MVP of this season. At least, we named him MVP for the reasons listed in this very post. Elias hasn't made a lot of noise in this series. He hasn't been bad, but he hasn't been as great either. He's still an important part of this team and a big reason why the Devils got back into the playoffs. I'd go as far as to say that Elias is Parise before Parise. If he can do what he has done to get our attention as the team's most valuable player, then the Devils' chances of success will drastically go up.
Petr Sykora: Do it to further complete your comeback to the NHL. His season was a very pleasant surprise and his twenty goals definitely smashed my expectations. Yet, he's been floating in and out of some games from February onward. He hasn't had a real impact on this series unless you count missed shots as an impact. I'm not going to say that his playoff performance completely erases what he's done in the season. However, showing up in this series now would put an exclamation mark at the end of the statement his 2011-12 campaign made to the world.
Dainius Zubrus: Do it because no one else at forward really does what he does so well. Zubrus has been used throughout the lineup in this past season. He's switched from center to wing, wing to center, and in between multiple lines. Regardless, Zubrus has been at his most effective when winning pucks along the boards and using his size to start or keep attacks alive in the other team's end of the rink. Admittedly, Zubrus hasn't really done a good enough job and that hurts the effectiveness of the line he plays on. And it hurts further because no one else on the team can do this while playing other positions and coming out ahead in possession. If he can get his own game sorted out and get back to being freight train along the boards, then the Devils will be all the better for it.
Alexei Ponikarovsky: Do it because you could use this chance to establish yourself with this team. Ponikarovsky has the frame to do what Zubrus does, but he's not as good at it. That's fine on a third line, where he goes up against weaker competition. For the most part, the acquisition of Ponikarovsky has been great. He's beefed up the third line and made it a viable unit. However, he's been nondescript in this series. He's not getting into corners and winning pucks, he's not doing so hot at evens, and he's not really contributing much of anything on offense. Since leaving Toronto, Ponikarovsky has bounced around the league; the Devils are his fourth. At age 32, he may prefer to stay or go to an organization where he could. Showing up with a standout performance would only help his cause.
Adam Henrique: Do it because you're sort of used to this. OK, Henrique is a rookie and so the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a new experience for him. However, Henrique has been in playoff situations before both in junior with Windsor and on the international level with team Canada. Henrique has had a fine rookie season but he looks like a regular run-of-a-mill, kind-of-overwhelmed rookie in these playoffs. He should tap into what he's done before, remember what he's done in the 2011-12 season,. While no one will ask or demand that he be the hero tonight, he can definitely play a supporting role.
David Clarkson: Do it because you're not a goon or an agitator, you're an offensive third liner with swagger. With 30 goals and over 200 shots, Clarkson has erased any notion that he's just the team's enforcer or a guy to anger his opponents physically. While he does too much of the former and he does draw a lot of calls, he's proven to be more useful than that. He got a hotter stick than usual and really contributed with his additional goals. In this playoff series, Clarkson has been muted. We've only seen one Clarkaround and while he has a bunch of shots, a lot of them are long, easy-to-stop shots. This isn't the Clarkson we all know and mostly like. Where's the confidence with the puck? Where's the effort to get the puck in deep before firing off a shot? If Clarkson can turn it around, then he'll be a similar asset to the team as he was during the regular season.
Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier: Do it because you weren't supposed to be here and you're making a strong case that you should have. Carter was acquired by the Devils after Florida put him on waivers. Gionta was a call up from Albany that never would have happened if Jacob Josefson was healthy and something got into Lou's and DeBoer's to bring him up over other players. Bernier tried out with the Devils in preseason, didn't make it, signed with Albany, broke his hand, and he got a shot at the NHL late in the season. All three weren't originally planned to be here, but they are. Together, these three have done what the fourth line hasn't all season: provide actual energy while chipping in a few goals. It's enough to make one wonder why this wasn't the fourth line all season. Perhaps it's enough to make Lou or some other team sign them for their fourth line when they become free agents this summer.
Andy Greene: Do it so you can get some of the respect you deserve. Greene has had a very good playoff series in my opinion. He's beating on the toughs, he's getting big minutes, and he's only had one egregious error: the tripping minor on Goc to kick off Game 2. Greene has become a very good defenseman and yet he doesn't get the props from Devils fans for some reason. Another solid playoff performance along with results and he should start getting them soon.
Mark Fayne: Do it because you stand to make some serious money now. With the absence of Henrik Tallinder, Fayne has taken on the role of facing tough competition and doing pretty well at it. Fayne's a steady defenseman and he doesn't wow people; but defensive defensemen usually aren't visually impressive. He's the lowest paid defenseman on the New Jersey roster at $542,500. As an impending RFA, a significant raise will be coming. With another strong playoff game along with results, that raise could be much more.
Bryce Salvador: Do it to complete your comeback from injury. Last summer, his career as a hockey player was in doubt. In 2011-12, Salvador played in all 82 games and he was pretty good for the most part. He also has been fantastic on the PK. While no one is praising the PK in the postseason, there aren't too many complaints to be made about Salvador outside of one stupid minor that led to a goal in Game 3. That Salvador got this far given his circumstances a year ago is impressive. Finish the drill with more good performances and it'll be even more impressive.
Marek Zidlicky: Do it to really spite Mike Yeo. You must have really hated Yeo, Mr. Zidlicky? Based on the numbers coming into New Jersey, I pegged you as a third pairing defenseman with some offensive skills. You weren't good in Minnesota, I wasn't really happy with the deal. After a few games, you've really settled in, you've handled big minutes very well, and you've contributed on offense both at evens and on the power play. I was wrong and pleasantly surprised. You're playing like you're actually happy to be in New Jersey. Why not stick to your old coach further and do what you can to try and play into May?
Peter Harrold: Do it to show you really do belong in the NHL. Harrold was acquired additional depth for the Devils at defense. Harrold spent much of the season in Albany. As Adam Larsson struggled and Matt Taormina failed to show he could do better, the Devils gave Harrold a shot near the end of this season. Harrold has been protected by minutes and competition, but he's shown more poise with the puck than Larsson and better positioning than Taormina. He's been impressive in his spot and so the Devils have correctly used him as the #6 defenseman ever since. If he can continue what he's been doing, then he could have a shot at one-way NHL deal and stick around as opposed to being just a tweener between the two leagues.
Anton Volchenkov: Do it because you're really much better than this. Volchenkov has been horrid in the first three games and he has been just not-terrible in the last two. It could be the nadir of a continued fall of his career; or it could be a slump. Whatever it is, I know the A-Train can put himself in better spots, make better decisions with the puck, and target his hits more accurately. Volchenkov, if you want to redeem yourself for the past five games, tonight is a great time to do it.
Martin Brodeur: Do it because you've been here before. Brodeur has set all kinds of records both in the regular season and in the playoffs. With three Stanley Cups, four Stanley Cup Final appearances, and a smattering of playoff runs ended early or otherwise, Brodeur has the most experience on the team with respect to these situations. I'm not at all concerned about how he'll play given Game 4 and the majority of Game 5; but he still needs to show up and do the job. As with any goaltender, it all starts from the net out. Time to do it again, Marty.
Peter DeBoer & the Coaching Staff: Do it so you can accomplish what hasn't been done since 2007. Brent Sutter, Jacques Lemaire's second term, and John MacLean all did not get past the first round. Sutter was the closest, but it didn't happen. While the coaches aren't on the ice, they do direct the players as far as tactics go. DeBoer and the coaches need to make adjustments as necessary, utilize the last change effectively, and communicate with the players to get the job done. DeBoer and this staff can do what hasn't been done by a coach yet; they should not squander this opportunity.
Everyone on the Devils: Do it because if it's not going to happen now, then you won't get the chance for quite awhile. If none of these work, find some others. Here's a few general ones: Do it for Tallinder and Josefson, who would otherwise love to contribute but are unable to do so due to some serious injuries. Do it for Lou, a guy who knows what's up and a guy who will let you know what's up if something isn't right. Do it for Jeff, since he signs the checks and the organization could use the revenue from more home games. Do it for your friends and family as they continue to support you. Do it for New Jersey because no other pro sports team wants to represent this fine state. Do it for the city of Newark even if Cory Booker is being a jerk as of late. Do it for the fans, who spend their time reading about the Devils, writing about the Devils, talking about the Devils, thinking about the Devils, spending money for the Devils, spending time for the Devils, wearing merchandise about the Devils, and generally obsess about the Devils to varying degrees when they could be doing so many other things. Do it for yourselves so you can each look in the mirror on Wednesday and say, "I've earned one more chance to play this year."
Regardless of whether this is read by the players themselves, there is no lack of reason to be motivated for this game and the rest of the playoffs. Do it, Devils.
Feel free to add your own additional motivations for each player in the comments. The preview post will come up later. Thanks for reading.