When Petr Sykora tried to pin John Madden to the crossbar through the throat, it became obvious this wasn't merely one of 82 games.
The crowd at the Arrowhead Pond, making up in passion for what it lacked in numbers, burst forth in spontaneous cheers to applaud the Mighty Ducks' penalty killing late in the second period. Jean-Sebastien Giguere, playing like the Conn Smythe Trophy winner he was last spring and not the lost soul he was the first weeks of this season, played with an assurance that showed in every snap of his glove and every kick of his legs and the legal armor he wore on them.
Like last spring, when they went to the limit in a dramatic, seven-game Stanley Cup final, the Ducks and New Jersey Devils pushed each other to play their best Wednesday when they weren't just pushing each other. It was exhilarating. Exhausting. A reminder of what hockey can be when it's played with skill, speed and heart, qualities too rarely linked in a league that has drummed out individual brilliance through its slavish devotion to defense.
"It was a fun game," Giguere said, smiling. "It was entertaining, back and forth and a lot of action."
The outcome was appropriate. The Devils, who had played Tuesday in Los Angeles, found the energy and tenacity to score twice in the third period but had to settle for a 3-3 tie -- and escaped with that thanks only to a reflex save by Martin Brodeur on a hat trick-seeking Sergei Fedorov with eight seconds left in overtime.
The Ducks, for whom so many things have been uncertain and unresolved this season, rose to the challenge and gained a moral victory. They didn't get two points, but if they can sustain this excellence and learn from the Devils the importance of never being satisfied with what they've done, it might be worth more later than the standings show today.
"They're the top team in the league, the Stanley Cup champions, so we wanted to have a good game against them," Giguere said. "We wanted to see what we're all about."
And that is...
"We did pretty good," Giguere said. "We know we can play against the best teams. We're still not as confident in the third period as we should be, but that's going to come with wins. But a lot of positives came from this."
Several facts became clear as the 16,472 fans filed slowly out of the Pond, almost as if they didn't want to leave the scene of so entertaining a spectacle:
The Ducks can play at an elite level when they want to, and Fedorov can lift them there with his quickness, intelligence and vision.
The Devils, riding a franchise record-tying 13-game unbeaten streak (10-0-3), are the best team in the NHL. The most disciplined. The most persistent. Not the most scintillating, just the most efficient and best built for success.
Although they've won three championships in nine seasons they're largely ignored beyond Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike; the press corps trailing them to Staples Center and the Pond consisted of one reporter, from the Newark Star-Ledger. Scott Stevens, who on Wednesday set an NHL record for defensemen by playing in his 1,616th game, would have won the Norris Trophy five or six or seven times if he played for the New York Rangers but has never won it with New Jersey.
But he has his name on the Cup three times, a fine compensation. And it would be no surprise if he and the Devils win again next spring.
The Devils haven't felt the sting of defeat since Oct. 25, in a 5-2 loss to Boston, yet they play every game as if it were the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. For one night, at least, that was true of the Ducks too. If only every game were like this, played at a brisk pace, with good chances at both ends.
"They don't have any great All-Star players," Giguere said of the Devils, "but all four lines can do what they do."
The Devils did a lot worth admiring Wednesday, even though they didn't win. If the Ducks are smart, they'll realize the Devils were providing a lesson in what it takes to win, a point the Ducks were too distraught to absorb last spring after their seven-game loss to the Devils in the finals. "Every line has skill. They see each other without looking, and they have a smooth, consistent passing game," Fedorov said in admiration. "At the same time, they skate pretty well as a group."
At their best, as they were Wednesday, the Ducks also fit that description. The Devils have shown them the path to success. It's up to the Ducks now to follow it.