By Joshua Brett
Special to the Times
TRENTON, N.J. – Neither Trenton Devils head coach Rick Kowalsky nor his Elmira Jackals counterpart, Steve Martinson, should be worried about their teams knowing how to handle the drama of a Game 7.
If the first six games of this ECHL North Division semifinal series haven’t gotten them mentally ready for Tuesday’s winner-take-all tilt at Sovereign Bank Arena, nothing will. Faceoff is 7 p.m.
There has been nary a pressure-free moment since this series got underway 10 days ago. From Elmira’s late-tying goal and ensuing 66-plus minutes of overtime in Game 1 to the T-Devils’ season-saving overtime escapes in Games 5 and 6, neither team has had the luxury of relaxing. Three of the games went to overtime, two of them multiple overtimes. Game 2 saw the Jackals nearly erase a three-goal deficit in the final eight minutes before the T-Devils escaped with a 6-5 win. Only in Elmira’s 5-0 victory in Game 3 was there anything that can remotely be considered garbage time.
The seemingly non-stop thrill ride that has been this series will culminate Tuesday. Sometime late this evening — and the way this series has gone, who knows how late — there will finally be a survivor who will advance to the North Division Finals.
“It’s not easy, I’m telling you,” said T-Devils forward Eric Castonguay, whose goal 5:43 into the second overtime of Game 6 forced tonight’s showdown. “It’s more in your head than your legs at this point. Both teams are playing good. (Elmira) is a good team, and it’s not easy. It’s about mental toughness at this point.”
It’s also exhausting for the coaches. While they’re not actually on the ice, they’re the ones having to create the game plans and make the right calls to execute it, all the while knowing that one correct hunch or miscalculation can make the difference between getting to play your next game tomorrow or not until October.
“You celebrate this. But as tired as I am, I can’t sleep because I’m trying to figure out how to win the next one,” Kowalsky said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Kowalsky has been involved with all three of the winner-take-all postseason games in Titans/T-Devils franchise history. On April 24, 2000, the Titans beat Kowalsky’s Hampton Roads Admirals, 4-2, in the fifth and deciding game of the Northern Conference semifinals.
On May 13, 2001, with Kowalsky now wearing a Titans uniform, they got a goal from Cail MacLean with 30 seconds remaining in regulation to beat the Peoria Rivermen, 4-3, in Game 7 of the National Conference Finals at SBA.
Almost exactly four years later, and some 3,500 miles to the northwest in Anchorage, Alaska, Kowalsky and the T-Devils won their second (and most recent) conference title with a 2-0 win over the Alaska Aces in Game 7 of the National Conference Finals.
“With what these guys have gone through, a Game 7 is similar to one big overtime,” Kowalsky said. “Obviously you want to limit your mistakes and play simple hockey. Our message may be no different than it has been the last three games with our lives on the line. If there is anything positive, what’s good about this is that we’ve been fighting for our lives for three games now.”
Elmira, however, has not. And now it faces the task of winning a Game 7 on the road or suffering the indignity of losing a series after leading three games-to-one.
The Jackals certainly had their chances to put the T-Devils away sooner. They had third-period leads in both Games 5 and 6 and couldn’t hold on either time. In the latter, the T-Devils had pulled goalie Jeff Frazee for an extra attacker. But defenseman Justin Coutu scored the tying goal just as Frazee reached the bench.
The Jackals had a four-minute power play in overtime of Game 5 after rookie Nathan Perkovich got called for a slash to the head of an Elmira player. They had a power play early in the second overtime of Game 6. They failed to convert on either one.
The Jackals get one last chance to earn their first playoff series win in the ECHL tonight. The T-Devils get a chance to write yet another memorable chapter to an already memorable season.
“We knew coming in that it was going to be a tough series,” Kowalsky said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance. And now it really does come down to one game.”