A chance to make a dream a reality
NEWARK, N.J. -- Maybe it was something in Henrik Tallinder's voice or his body language that made his head coach do a complete reversal and put him in the lineup for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Maybe it was Tallinder's quiet insistence that he could do something to help the New Jersey Devils stay alive in a series they trailed 3-0.
Maybe it's just one of those gut things that have the potential to blow up in a coach's face but in this case didn't, as the Devils defeated the Kings 3-1 to force a fifth game in the series with Tallinder in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 17.
At Tuesday's practice, Peter DeBoer told Tallinder he wasn't going to make a change in the lineup because the defense hadn't really been the issue in the Devils' three losses to start the final series. By the end of the day, though, DeBoer was on the phone with Tallinder to tell him he would play.
"Really where I had a change of heart was just in his reaction. It wasn't negative. He was just adamant that he was ready, really thought he could help," DeBoer explained after the Devils, including Tallinder, skated Friday morning in Newark.
"When a player puts his neck on the line like that, I get a real comfort level knowing he was a veteran guy and knowing how good he was at the top of his game for us as a top-two guy, that he could help us. ... Little bit of a risk. But he basically talked me into that."
The move allowed DeBoer to go to a more traditional lineup on the blue line with Anton Volchenkov moving back with partner Bryce Salvador, while Tallinder played with Marek Zidlicky, who was acquired while Tallinder was recovering from a blood clot in his leg.
But beyond the defensive scheme there is the message that Tallinder's will to return from a career-threatening condition sent to a room that faces a significant obstacle against the Los Angeles Kings.
"I know for him it's been killing him," Salvador said. "You're not part of a run that's happening, the team's having success and you're not involved in it. I felt that last year when I was sitting out and the team was all of a sudden turning it around about to make history coming from basically the worst team to making the playoffs.
"It's just great that he was in the position that he was able to come back. Obviously he's a big part of our D corps, he plays big minutes and moves the puck well and skates well and allows us to change up the pairings."
Tallinder is 33 years old and this is his furthest foray into the postseason. The longtime Sabre advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with Buffalo in 2006 and 2007, but a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and a chance at a ring has eluded him. Until now.
To step on the ice as he did at the Staples Center Wednesday, his team's season hanging in the balance, to be a part of at least a mini-revival, well, it doesn't get much better than that.
"It's a lot of words: excitement, nervous, happy, it was so many emotions out there," Tallinder said Friday. "I just enjoyed [it]. It was so much fun. It's another level even from the conference finals to go to the finals. It's another level.
"I just got the call [from DeBoer] and I was just excited. A little bit too excited there; probably wanted to play the game right there, then."
While he admitted his first few shifts were a bit clunky, Tallinder thought he ended up playing a pretty decent game as DeBoer didn't hesitate to call his number during Game 4. Tallinder finished with 19:21 in ice time.
"Thought he was outstanding. Big boost for us," DeBoer said.
Not bad for a guy who was initially led to believe his season would be over back in mid-January.
The Devils had been on a long road trip that included flights to Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg before returning to Newark. By the time Tallinder returned home his leg was aching.
"I started to feel it in the morning but you just think it's something like a slashing or a slap shot that you blocked," he said. "You don't realize it's a blood clot. Then it got worse and worse and worse and never got better.
"You know what a blood clot is but you don't realize until you get one how serious it is."
Initially doctors told him he would be out three months, then six months, then three.
"I was in and out. Oh, I'm in [this] season, oh, no I'm out, oh I'm in the season, oh I'm out. So it was tough because you want to get ready and then ah, man, and then you shut everything off and then, oh, you're going in again. It was tough," Tallinder said.
After taking medicine to help his body dissolve the blood clot for three months, Tallinder spent a month making sure the treatment would hold.
He has been skating for three weeks and was cleared to play before Game 1 of the finals.
"You always have the hopes to play. But obviously it's not easy for Coach to put you in there after four months absent," he said.
Unless, of course, you're able to talk him into it.
What are the chances that at some point in Game 5 Tallinder and Simon Gagne will collide in the Devils' zone or along the boards somewhere at Prudential Center?
What are the chances they will for a moment have a sense of their shared paths? Their shared dreams?
And if that moment occurs, even for a nanosecond, will it register that only one will realize that dream of a first Stanley Cup?
"To me, I take it as my last chance," a candid Gagne said Friday.
"I'm at this point right now and I've been in the league for 12 years and I'm always going to remember my first year in the league, losing Game 7 here against those guys [the Devils] and being one game away to go to the Stanley Cup finals your first year and you think you're going to have many years in front of you to go back."
It doesn't work that way, though.
Gagne, the 22nd-overall pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1998, finally got to the finals in 2010. Along the way his Flyers erased a 3-0 series lead against Boston before ultimately losing in six games to Chicago on Patrick Kane's overtime winner.
"It's one thing to get there. It's not guaranteed you're going to win; that's what happened in 2010 and having this chance this year and being in that position right now it's the closest I've been," Gagne said. "It's going to be my last shot. Maybe not but I'm going to approach it like it's going to be my last chance."
That the 32-year-old has this shot at all is more than a little surprising.
He was felled by a concussion, one of many in his career, and had not played since Dec. 26.
Early in the Western Conference finals, he was cleared to resume practicing with contact. And as the Kings kept winning, the forgotten figure in the their locker room held out hope that maybe he would get a chance.
"The more we keep playing, the more we keep winning in the playoffs I was like, no, maybe there was going to be a chance for me to come back and play and test [my durability] before next season," Gagne said. "I'm really happy that the boys here gave me the chance to do it. I know that it's hard to get here and I'm really happy to be part of it again."
After Game 2's overtime victory, Kings head coach Darryl Sutter grabbed Gagne and told him he was drawing him back into the L.A. lineup.
"I don't know if it was just a reaction after a win, he said something like that, I was like OK, I'll be ready," Gagne said. "After that he didn't speak to me until the morning skate [before Game 3]. It was like two days not really knowing if I was going to play or not."
But the coach was good to his word and Gagne was in the Game 3 lineup.
"I think offense is always at a premium," Sutter said. "If you can get a guy back to close to where he was, and I think the farther you go in the playoffs, the more of those top-end guys you can have in your lineup, as long as they're up to speed, the better your team is."
It's hard to take kids out -- in this case Brad Richardson has been out of the lineup the past two games for Gagne -- but Sutter felt Gagne would give his attack more balance.
Gagne has provided a nice spark even in a limited role, playing 7:49 in Game 4 after logging just 6:39 in Game 3. He has five shots in two games and had several good chances in Game 4, including a breakaway and a terrific pass to spring Trevor Lewis on a breakaway.
Teammate Justin Williams broke into the NHL with the Flyers a year after Gagne's rookie campaign. Williams went on to win a Cup in Carolina in 2006 and he knows the trials and tribulations of trying to return from a serious injury.
"I think once you come back from a long injury adrenaline can take you a long way. It can get you through a week, two weeks purely on emotion," Williams said. "It's the professional in you that after those two weeks that you can maintain it and not have a dip and I've certainly experienced it and Simon's done great here coming in and playing a huge role.
"You can just tell by the look on his face. I don't want to take anything away from how much anyone else wants it on this team, but Simon is certainly one of those guys that you look at and you look at his face and the emotion in it and you know that he wants this thing more than anything and that in turn rubs off on everyone on the team. And as I said, it's great having him back in our locker room."