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Devils look forward to home-ice advantage in Final

by Brian Hunter

NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Devils haven't had to get on a plane for more than a month. That's all going to change soon -- but not quite yet.

After advancing to the Stanley Cup Final with Friday night's 3-2 overtime win to close out the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Devils will get to enjoy a few days off and then play the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 on Wednesday (8 p.m., ET; NBC, CBC, RDS) with something they haven't had yet in these playoffs: home-ice advantage.

Not to say that's necessarily a good thing against the West champs. The Devils will be putting a 6-2 record at Prudential Center this spring up against the Kings' perfect 8-0 mark on the road, an NHL record.


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"I'm already looking forward to it," forward Stephen Gionta said shortly after a goal by Adam Henrique 63 seconds into overtime left New Jersey just four wins shy of the Cup for the first time since 2003. "It's going to be an exciting series. It's the Finals. It's going to be fun."

While the Devils had to win a pair of elimination games against Florida and then get past their two biggest rivals in Philadelphia and New York, the Kings blew through the West's top three seeds to the tune of a 12-2 overall record.

"They're a good team. They have to be to be able to make it this far," Gionta said. "We know how well they play on the road, so we have to answer that and come out flying in Game 1."

The Devils will get to spend another week continuing to enjoy home cooking and familiar surroundings, but once they leave Prudential Center after Game 2 next Saturday, they'll experience a change in what had become their routine travel plans.

Instead of the simple bus ride down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia or through the Lincoln Tunnel to Madison Square Garden, they'll head to the airport for the first time since flying to Florida for Game 7 back in the first round.

Several players brushed off the idea that not having to rack up the frequent-flyer miles made the last two rounds in any way easier.

"It's still a hard series," forward Alexei Ponikarovsky said. "I think travel, maybe, you still spend to go to Philly an hour and a half on the bus. It's the same if you get on the plane and fly somewhere an hour and a half. I don't think it was a big difference, but maybe it helped."

"I don't know if the lack of travel helps you or hurts you," forward Ryan Carter said. "There's pressure every night and I think that's what wears you down more than travel. But the staff has done a good job giving us rest regardless, so we're well-rested."

Veteran forward Patrik Elias has won a pair of Stanley Cups -- the most recent, in 2003, featured a number of cross-country flights back and forth between New Jersey and Anaheim before the Devils were able to vanquish the Ducks in seven games. He, for one, appreciated the break from flying this year.

"That was great," he said. "This is going to be a little different, obviously. We've done it in 2003 and it's not easy. It's not easy, but it's the same thing for [the Kings]."

"[The Kings] are a good team. They have to be to be able to make it this far. We know how well they play on the road, so we have to answer that and come out flying in Game 1."
-- Devils' forward Stephen Gionta on facing the L.A. Kings in the Cup Final

One benefit the Devils got by closing the Rangers out in six was some extra rest. The Kings last played Tuesday, when they eliminated the Coyotes on Dustin Penner's overtime goal, and will have had seven days off before starting the Final. The Devils will have had four.

"We can take a couple days off; we don't have to travel right away," Elias said. "It doesn't matter. We have to play well in both rinks."

New Jersey and Los Angeles don't have a ton of history, usually playing just once a season. They met twice in 2011-12 and the Devils won both games -- but the last one was back on Oct. 25 at Staples Center.

There aren't a lot of connections between the teams among the players.

Devils defenseman Peter Harrold played 164 games over parts of five seasons with the Kings and Ponikarovsky spent the 2010-11 season in L.A. Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell was an eighth-round pick by the Devils in the 1996 NHL Draft and broke into the League by playing 18 games for New Jersey before making a name for himself elsewhere.

The juiciest storyline to start this series probably involves New Jersey star Ilya Kovalchuk, who was courted by Los Angeles when he was a free agent in the summer of 2010 before electing to remain with the Devils.

"It's big," Kovalchuk said about having home ice against the Kings. "It's a big advantage for us. We deserve it, and we have to use it to our advantage."

Kovalchuk had never made it beyond the first round prior to this playoff run. On the Devils' roster, only goalie Martin Brodeur, Elias, Carter, Petr Sykora, Anton Volchenkov and Dainius Zubrus have been to the Final. That's about to change.

"As a kid you dream of playing in the NHL and you pretend you're in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final," forward David Clarkson said. "To be here is a pretty special feeling."

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