Ilya Kovalchuk made a fairly bold prediction Friday.
Too bad it wasn’t a guarantee that came out of the mouth of the New Jersey Devils winger.
"(Game 5) will be the deciding game in the series," Kovalchuk said. "It’s a huge game for both teams."
The Eastern Conference quarterfinal between the Devils and Florida Panthers is tied 2-2. Although the Devils have a little more wind in their sails after a determined 4-0 victory in Game 4, the Panthers didn’t slink back to south Florida with their tails between their legs.
It’s a best-of-three now, and if three games indeed are remaining, two will be at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla., starting with Game 5 Saturday night.
The Devils, with their latest victory, are the only team in this series to have played a complete game. The momentum is theirs and they could continue to hold it with another strong push from the opening faceoff.
"The bottom line is you just have to out-work the guy across from you," said Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky, who has won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
"There is no science to it. We respect those guys, they respect us. You have to keep your composure at all times. This is where it counts with winning your division (and getting home-ice advantage)."
Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, as usual, wouldn’t reveal the identity of his starting goalie Saturday. It’s all but certain, though, he will go back to Jose Theodore, who was pulled in Game 3 and watched all of Game 4 from the bench as Scott Clemmensen made his first NHL playoff start. Clemmensen, a career backup, was nothing special and Theodore gives the Panthers a better chance to win.
Dineen said he was "cautiously optimistic" that defenceman Jason Garrison, who missed Game 4 with a lower-body injury, would be back Saturday. Garrison’s replacement, Keaton Ellerby, suffered a lower-body injury and will not play.
Although the Devils dominated for the majority of Game 4, it’s coach Peter DeBoer’s job to find parts that didn’t meet his satisfaction. New Jersey killed off all six Florida power plays, but DeBoer wasn’t thrilled with allowing a half-dozen chances. And once the Devils built a 3-0 lead in the third period, they played a little too loose for his liking.
"We just have to play a good road game," DeBoer said. "I thought we turned the puck over a little too much, gave them a little too much off the rush. Marty (Brodeur) bailed us out in some situations so I think we can tighten that up.
"Our discipline in the third got away from us a little bit."
Post-whistle scrums and careless hits to the head that have been making headlines during the Stanley Cup playoffs have not been part of this series. It has been hard-hitting and intense, an approach neither club will abandon.
The talk around the Devils keeps coming back to Kovalchuk, whose talent is equalled by no other player in this series. He and Calder Trophy nominee Adam Henrique did not practise Friday as they took a rest day, but both said there was no question they would play Saturday.
Kovalchuk didn’t sign a 15-year, $100-million US contract in 2010 with the expectation he would dominate during the regular season and pop in and out during the playoffs. He wasn’t overly excited about his goal in Game 4, noting that it was the fourth goal in a 4-0 win.
Kovalchuk has two goals and one assist in four games, but the sense remains that he could be the determining factor for the Devils if he puts his mind to it.
"It has not been the best series probably for me," Kovalchuk said, "but there are still a couple games left and everything is in my hands and it’s in our hands."