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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Time to give Devils their due

Globe and Mail Update
Monday, June 9, 2003

East Rutherford, N.J. — After a Stanley Cup final that began with a whimper but ended with an unexpected bang, it's time to give the Devils their due.

Dropped into a New Jersey swampland 21 years ago as the former Colorado Rockies, the Devils won their third Stanley Cup championship since 1995 last night, which is as close to a dynasty as it gets in today's low-risk, low-chance National Hockey League.

Cinderella, in the form of the plucky Anaheim Mighty Ducks, put on an inspired show but ultimately fell in the seventh game, a 3-0 New Jersey victory.

For marketing purposes, for interests sake, even just to make Carol Niedermayer happy, the league would done better with a Ducks' win, but it wasn't to be. Instead, the Stanley Cup stays in the hands of one of the NHL's more enduring champions.

Only four teams have won the Stanley Cup since the Devils first did in 1995 - New Jersey, Detroit, Dallas and Colorado. Once in a while, an unlikely contender goes on a nice playoff run, but disappears just before the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Phil Pritchard uncrates the Stanley Cup so commissioner Gary Bettman can hand it to the winning captain — in this case, the Devils' Scott Stevens.

It was a mesmerizing victory in the sense of being hypnotic, a return to the same close-checking style featured in the first four games of the series.

Aesthetically, the most compelling match of the Stanley Cup final took place in Game 5, a rollicking, wide-open 6-3 Devils' win. That night, it took a long time for someone — in this case Devils' defenceman Tommy Albelin — to acknowledge that this turn of events may have actually been a good thing.

"It was a little crazy," said Albelin, "but good crazy."

Sadly, 'good crazy' represents an aberration, not the norm, these days. As long as the players are conditioned to abhor 'good crazy,' that's all it will ever be — a game that comes out of nowhere every once in awhile, before the league returns to its regularly scheduled programming.

So New Jersey wins again and in the copycat world of the NHL, this does not exactly represent a positive omen.

The Devils' run will reinforce the notion that emphasizing defence at the expense of a skating, attacking approach is the only way to win in the NHL. In many respects, the Ducks' success can be traced to their own willingness to adopt a Devils' style of play, even the players — Paul Kariya, Petr Sykora, Sandis Ozolinsh — with the capacity to do more.

The fact that the Ducks turned the 69-point, 13th place club they were two years ago into a Stanley Cup finalist will undoubtedly ramp up the pressure on other organizations to do the same. Owners will turn to their general managers and insist: 'If the Ducks can get to the Stanley Cup final and the Minnesota Wild to the semi-finals, then why can't we?'

The pressure will subsquently filter down to the coaches and players and pretty soon, everybody will be mimicking the Devils and Ducks.

Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello hired Pat Burns to coach the team last summer because he wanted someone behind the bench who shared his organizational philosophies.

Presumably, the only time Lamoriello ever wavers in his conviction to the Devils' less-is-more approach is when he scans the thousands of empty seats, which his team frequently plays to. It took until the Devils were deep into the third round against the Ottawa Senators before sellouts became commonplace at the Continental Airlines Arena.

Nowhere was the Devils' commitment to goaltending and defence more evident than in Monday night's win, beginning with netminder Martin Brodeur, who rebounded from a mediocre performance in the sixth game to record his seventh shutout of the playoffs, most ever in a single playoff year.

Brodeur helped Canada win a gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics and now has his name on the Stanley Cup three times by the age of 31.

To appreciate how much Brodeur has done in so quiet and understated a fashion, consider that Jean-Sebastien Giguere, his opposite number in the Anaheim goal and the darling of the 2003 playoffs, is already 26 and just completed his first-ever NHL playoff.

Brodeur has won consistently since arriving in the NHL and, as long as the spirit moves him to continue, he will own all the records — regular-season and playoff — currently in the hands of the now retired Patrick Roy.

Joined at the hip — metaphorically if nowhere else — is Stevens who, at 39, remains a primal force on the Devils' blueline, playing the game as effectively as he did a decade ago, showing no signs of sliping into mediocrity.

Burns had a funny line the night Stevens passed his former coach Larry Robinson to move into first place on the playoff games-played list for defencemen. Someone asked Burns: Can you talk about Stevens' importance to the Devils?

"It's all I've been talking about for nine months," grumbled Burns.

For a change, Stevens shared some of the spotlight with Scott Niedermayer, the Devils' defenceman who set up the first two goals Monday, tying him with teammate Jamie Langenbrunner for the playoff scoring title, with 18 points apiece.

In the days leading up to the final, one of the more intriguing subplots centred on the brothers Niedermayer, Anaheim's Rob and New Jersey's Scott. On a conference call with reporters, their mother Carol announced she was cheering for the Ducks so that Robbie could win his first Stanley Cup (Scott had won two already).

That would be the Disney way too — a Goliath vanquished, followed by a lot of happily ever after.

Instead, Scott Niedermayer will bring the Stanley Cup back to Cranbrook for a day next summer; Rob Niedermayer will steadfastly refuse to touch it.

Burns, a popular figure in his days behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens' bench, wins the Stanley Cup for the first time in a career that began with the 1988-89 Canadiens. Burns made it to the final in his first season and then waited 14 years to get back, which made the whole thing doubly sweet.

Burns kept the Devils on an even keel all season, stressing the end justifies the means. The means in New Jersey is always the same: Play tight-checking, positionally sound hockey, leaving little room for speed or flow or completed passes or high-risk plays.

Only for winning.

So the season goes into the history books and on Monday night, the Devils provided the final, lasting memories of 2002-03 . . . such as they were. ROBTv Workopolis