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NHL history full of great must-win Game 4's

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

The great New York sports legend Yogi Berra once said "it ain't over till it's over," and even though Berra was undoubtedly talking about baseball, he might as well have been talking about every sport.

After the New Jersey Devils took a 3-0 lead over the Rangers in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on Wednesday, those versed in NHL history were quick to point out that only two teams -- the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders -- have ever come back from such a deficit to win a playoff series.

This is true, but until a playoff series actually ends, Yogi Berra's maxim is equally true. And over the past 20 years, numerous NHL teams have fallen into 0-3 holes but fought back valiantly to avoid sweeps and extend playoff runs -- one game at a time.

In 1987, the NHL went to best-of-seven series in all four rounds of the playoffs for the first time in it history. Since that year, 62 playoff series have started off with three straight wins for one team. But sweeps are hardly automatic, as 20 of those teams discovered when they lost Game 4. Of the 20 underdogs who refused to be swept, 19 were playing on home ice.

On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, the Devils will be looking for their first series sweep since 2000. Since then, they have failed to complete sweeps twice. In 2001, New Jersey led Carolina 3-0 before dropping Game 4 in overtime, and in 2003, New Jersey led Boston 3-0 before the Bruins routed them 5-1 in Game 4.

For one Rangers player, Saturday's game might seem like a bit of déjà vu. Winger Martin Rucinsky, who returned from a finger injury on Wednesday, was in this exact same situation nine years ago when he played for Montreal. The 1997 Canadiens trailed the Devils 3-0 in the opening round of the 1997 playoffs, but refused to go quietly in Game 4.

Rucinsky's Montreal team won their Game 4 in triple overtime, going 47:37 past regulation before Patrice Brisebois extended the series with a 4-3 win. Incredibly, the Canadiens had trailed the Devils 2-0 after one period but stormed back with three goals to nearly take the game in regulation.

In the same year that Rucinsky and the Habs fought back to beat the Devils in Game 4, a Pittsburgh Penguins team that included current Ranger Jaromir Jagr also turned the trick against Philadelphia. Trailing the series 3-0, Pittsburgh took a different approach to Game 4. The Pens lit up the Flyers in the first period, scoring three times to run away with a 4-1 win.

So, while hockey history tells us that coming back from 3-0 to win a series is a rarity at best, it also reminds us that 3-0 series leads don't take anything away from the intensity of Game 4. With the Rangers now facing their first absolute must-win game of the 2005-06 season, Saturday's game won't be lacking for drama when a victory would offer so much to build on - one game at a time.

After all, it ain't over till it's over.
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