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UP AGAINST IT DESPITE A LATE-SEASON SURGE, DEFENDING STANLEY CUP CHAMP NEW JERSEY IS HAVING A DEVIL OF A TIME JUST MAKING THE PLAYOFFS

April 08, 1996
April 08, 1996

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April 8, 1996

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UP AGAINST IT DESPITE A LATE-SEASON SURGE, DEFENDING STANLEY CUP CHAMP NEW JERSEY IS HAVING A DEVIL OF A TIME JUST MAKING THE PLAYOFFS

A COUPLE of weeks ago New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin
Brodeur noticed slumping Devils right wing Stephane Richer
moping around, grim as a tax audit, so Brodeur made him a deal:
He would pay Richer $100 for every goal he scored, if Richer
would give Brodeur $100 for every game Brodeur won. After
Richer's hat trick in a 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning
on March 26, Brodeur, the winning goalie, found himself $200 in
the hole.

This is an article from the April 8, 1996 issue Original Layout

Richer, the sullen sniper on hockey's most buttoned-down team,
agreed to settle for a dress shirt instead of cash, but Brodeur
returned from prowling the stores the next afternoon
empty-handed. "That was tough," Brodeur says of shopping for
Richer. "It's like buying a present for your wife."

The Devils: You can't dress them up, and you might not even be
able to take them out. To the big playoff dance, that is.
Instead of fine-tuning for the postseason--giving the overworked
Brodeur a breather, polishing their asphyxiating trap--the
defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves in a frenzied
game of musical chairs as one of four teams chasing the final
three Eastern Conference playoff slots. The top eight teams in
each conference qualify for the postseason, and through Sunday
the Devils (34-29-12) were eighth, but only one point out of
ninth. When the music stops at the end of the regular season on
April 14, New Jersey could become the first team since the 1970
Montreal Canadiens to miss the playoffs the year after winning
the Stanley Cup. "That's not the kind of thing you want to go
down in history for," says Devils right wing Bill Guerin.

Their recent record suggests New Jersey will be spared that
ignominy. Indeed, all the vital signs point to playoff success:
As of Sunday the Devils had lost only four of their past 17
games, were an impressive 7-0-12 in overtime this season, were
ranked second to the powerful Detroit Red Wings in goals-against
average, had the best record in the conference (15-7-8) since
the All-Star break and had the second-best road record in the
NHL (9-4-6) since Jan. 1.

"You can't count them out in the playoffs," Pittsburgh Penguins
center Ron Francis says. "Having won the Cup before, they know
what it takes to do it. They're better prepared to handle all
the mental things that crop up. They also have great goaltending
and defense. They're dangerous."

But the numbers from the Devils' 10-week surge may be illusory,
masking an inconsistency that still plagues them. Last Thursday,
New Jersey allowed the Blues to hold a kiddies' skating party in
a 4-4 tie, permitting St. Louis 31 shots in the first two
periods and 10 terrific scoring chances (resulting in one goal)
in the second. The Blues' four goals all came from the slot, the
sector the rugged Devils defense is supposed to sweep. New
Jersey players have been uttering all the right locker room
quotes about their desperation, but they played the first 40
minutes as if they were in Dockers and boat shoes. The next day
in Pittsburgh, coach Jacques Lemaire only hinted at his
frustration, fearful any careless public words might upset some
players. You just hope his feet are more callused than his team.
On the way out of the Civic Arena after practice, Lemaire
expressed himself more freely, kicking a metal dolly.

After sipping champagne from hockey's chalice, any team can get
a whopping Stanley Cup hangover. The complacent feeling mingles
with the resolve of opponents who want to knock you down a peg,
and the next thing you're doing is reaching for the excuses
along with the Tylenol. The champion Canadiens had just such a
hangover in 1994, losing to the Boston Bruins in the first
playoff round. The New York Rangers had it in 1995 when they
staggered to the last playoff spot and were whipped by the
Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. The Devils could be
where their despised New York neighbors were a year ago. If they
do make the playoffs, how much will they have left? Brodeur's
superb work hasn't received the attention of Blues goalie Grant
Fuhr's consecutive-start record, but Brodeur has started 37
straight games and played in 70 of 75 this season. Many of them
have been cliff-hangers: Thirty-seven Devils games have been
decided by no more than one goal. "The way things have gone,"
New Jersey assistant coach Chris Nilan says, "it's like we've
been playing playoff games since the All-Star break."

The pressure has created tension as Lemaire has taken away and
given ice time in bursts, a punishment-reward system that has
raised hackles and some eyebrows. He benched Guerin, a
first-line right wing, for the second half of the victory over
the Lightning. Three weeks ago, in a 3-0 loss to the Florida
Panthers that ended a 10-game unbeaten run, he sat Richer for
the entire third period. Lemaire explained that he hadn't liked
the way Richer had warmed up before the game. Of course Lemaire
meant that Richer hadn't awakened in the two periods after a
desultory warmup, but the coach ended up sounding as if someone
had stolen his strawberries.

Lemaire, a Hall of Fame center who won eight Stanley Cup rings
with the Montreal Canadiens, is no Queeg. But he isn't exactly
running McHale's Navy, either. In a memorable locker room
oration earlier this season, Lemaire told the Devils he wasn't
there to be a friend or a father figure but to be a guide to a
second Stanley Cup. There is no warm and fuzzy in Lemaire's cold
game of ice hockey.

"If you fail to complete one pass, you can get into Jacques's
bad books," defenseman Ken Daneyko says. "That's happened to a
lot of guys because we've been inconsistent. You play 22 minutes
one night, think you've been solid, and the next game, you play
10 minutes because you're up against a different team and
Jacques sees a different situation. You can't argue with him.
I've tried"--Daneyko laughs--"but he's pushed all the right
buttons since he came here [before the 1993-94 season]."

"This isn't the military, but almost," Brodeur says. "For
Jacques, everyone has to be the same."

The troops almost all went AWOL right before the All-Star break
when Lemaire scheduled practice the day after a disappointing
loss to the Bruins. The players had thought they would have the
day off for a head start on their hiatus, and veteran center
Neal Broten, who had plans to go to Florida with his family,
announced he was skipping practice. There was widespread
sentiment that the team should boycott the practice in
solidarity. Sanity prevailed, but as Guerin says, "All the guys
were behind Brotsie [who was fined $3,500 and did not dress for
one game]. It blew over in a couple of days, but it was great
the way the guys stuck together. The whole thing didn't hurt us
at all."

Maybe it helped. Or maybe the five days off gave the Devils a
different perspective. Certainly New Jersey returned from the
break a new team, one that general manager Lou Lamoriello would
further transform in the next two months. The Devils' inept
offense was becoming even more of a hallmark than their
neutral-zone trap, so on Feb. 26 Lamoriello made a trade with
the Calgary Flames for offensive defenseman Phil Housley, and
two weeks later he sent two draft picks to the Toronto Maple
Leafs for former 50-goal left wing Dave Andreychuk. Housley, 32,
is the anti-Devil, a gifted but undisciplined defenseman who
loves to lug the puck and gamble. However,
except for one egregious error--leaving the puck outside
Brodeur's crease in the tie with St. Louis--he has smothered his
impulses and fit in well. Housley will be an unrestricted free
agent after the season and will test the market, but the
32-year-old Andreychuk, who at week's end had three goals in
eight games for New Jersey, represents a commitment by the team.
The Devils will pay him $7.2 million over the next three seasons.

Lamoriello found another offensive fix--one that was smaller and
cheaper--in 21-year-old center Steve Sullivan, a ninth-round
draft pick who was recalled from the Albany River Rats of the
American Hockey League last month and scored five goals in his
first 12 games, including a breakaway against the Lightning. "I
call him the human highlight film," says teammate Randy McKay,
who must be watching on a 12-inch screen. The yappy, combative
Sullivan is listed at 5'9" but is actually a mere 5'7". He was
cut from a bantam team in Timmons, Ont., at age 15 because he
was too small. Despite his game-winner in Tampa, Sullivan played
only sparingly against the Blues and was scratched in a 2-1 loss
to Pittsburgh last Saturday in favor of another small but
effective rookie, 5'11", 183-pound Petr Sykora.

When he came to the Devils, Lemaire took the traditional 1-2-2
forechecking scheme and refined it into a dynamic,
counterattacking system for his big, fast but not overwhelmingly
skilled players. The problem is, the makeup of his squad has
changed. "You have to remember, we're not the same big Devils,"
Brodeur says of a team whose forwards averaged nine pounds more
per man than Detroit's in last season's Stanley Cup finals.
"Claude Lemieux [the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as Stanley Cup
MVP who was traded last October in a three-team deal for 5'11",
184-pound Steve Thomas] is gone, and he was 6'2", 215. We've got
Sully and Sykora. Our big guys like Mike Peluso and Bobby Holik
have had injuries. Maybe Thomas will be even better than Lemieux
in the playoffs, but you have to wait and see. Who knows?"

For a Stanley Cup champion, it is a weird mantra. But really,
who does know? In the one-game-at-a-time Eastern Conference,
only the Flyers seem to be peaking at the right time. The
Rangers have been slumping. Pittsburgh has defensive
deficiencies. There is no uberteam. A spot in the Cup finals is
there for the taking if New Jersey makes the playoffs. And that
looks promising, considering the Devils' schedule. Of their
seven remaining games, three are against nonplayoff teams.

"I don't believe in the philosophy of flicking a switch, but
I've seen it happen--to us, last year," New Jersey captain Scott
Stevens says. "We were fifth in the conference, and then we go
up to Boston to start the playoffs, and we have this
unbelievable practice. Crisp. All the passes on the sticks.
Afterward I said to our coaches, 'Is this our team?' "

Lemaire, for one, doesn't need any further spark to motivate
him. He was on the 1970 Canadien team that despite earning 92
points during a 76-game schedule, missed the playoffs. More than
a quarter of a century later, it is still too painful for him to
discuss.

His players, however, are talking with confidence. "I wouldn't
want to play us," says Daneyko. "We're built for the playoffs.
We're tough to beat in a long series." Unfortunately for the
Devils, they may not get a chance to prove that.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Andreychuk is giving his new team a crash course in playing offense. [Dave Andreychuk]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Foes have been tripping up the Devils' downsized lineup, including even big guns like the 6'1" McKay. [Randy McKay and opponent]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOBrodeur has been the Devils' savior but couldn't stop the Blues' Geoff Courtnall from scoring here. [Martin Brodeur and Geoff Courtnall]