The Team to Beat
After a 13-victory streak, the Devils again look Stanley
Last Friday afternoon, one year after Larry Robinson took over as
coach of the Devils and just hours before New Jersey ran its
winning streak to 13 games with a 4-0 home victory over the
Canucks, Robinson was hanging around the dressing room talking
about his job. "I feel like a father of 20 kids who have all
turned out great," he said about the defending Stanley Cup
champions. Then he sighed. "It's too bad that when you've got to
be hard on them, you've got to be hard."
Robinson, 50, is known as Big Bird, and the nickname suits him
not only because he's big and birdlike (6'4", with a long
wingspan) but also because he has a kindly manner worthy of
Sesame Street and because he likes to take players under his
wing. He particularly enjoys these Devils, a dedicated and deeply
talented bunch that at week's end led the Atlantic Division
(42-18-12-3) and had shown no signs of self-reverence over the
streak, which ended with a 4-2 loss to the Penguins on Sunday.
Robinson has guided New Jersey with gentleness as well as with
flashes of anger that, for example, led him to bench such
integral forwards as Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik, and Petr Sykora
when their play slipped. Each responded to the benching with
renewed vigor. "He doesn't get mad often, but when he does, he
tells you to your face what's wrong," says Gomez. "Then he gives
you the chance to make it better."
This season, with its late run of success, contrasts with last
year, when New Jersey struggled for much of the second half. Not
only was coach Robbie Ftorek dismissed and replaced by Robinson,
an assistant, with eight games left in the season, but G.M. Lou
Lamoriello also shook up the Devils in mid-March by acquiring
sniper Alexander Mogilny and skilled defenseman Vladimir
Malakhov. Those moves helped New Jersey win the Cup. This year
Lamoriello has made only subtle changes. "They have no
weaknesses," says Canucks coach Marc Crawford. "Other top teams
might do one thing better than New Jersey does, but New Jersey
has the whole package."
The Devils had scored the most goals (262) and surrendered the
second fewest (175) in the Eastern Conference, and Robinson has
been coaching with an eye to the playoffs, spreading around ice
time, giving No. 1 goalie Martin Brodeur an occasional breather
and resting older players such as defenseman Ken Daneyko and
winger Randy McKay. "Last year at this time we had to focus on
playing the right way," says Robinson. "Now we're playing the
right way, so we're just tweaking. I'm proud of these guys."
Bourque Returns to Boston
Rooting for The Enemy
The Oscar for film editing should go to Mark Chambers, a
producer for Boston's game presentation at the FleetCenter, who
succeeded in distilling the almost 21 years of Ray Bourque's
career as a Bruin into a two-minute tribute that was shown on
the scoreboard last Saturday when Bourque, now an Avalanche
defenseman, made his first appearance in Boston since he was
traded on March 6, 2000. Bourque isn't at the Williams-Orr-Bird
level among Boston sports heroes, but he's close. (He played
1,518 games for Boston, behind only the 1,687 that Gordie Howe
and the 1,549 that Alex Delvecchio played for the Red Wings as
the most with a franchise.) He was totally dedicated to the
Bruins, which explains why, when he asked to be dealt from the
going-nowhere Bruins last winter, there was hardly a murmur of
protest among Boston fans.
Last Saturday fans descended on Causeway Street wearing number 77
sweaters, many with the familiar spoked B and some in Colorado
burgundy and royal blue. They were looking for something
memorable and got it. They saw vintage Bourque: working the point
on the power play, killing six penalties, assisting on two goals,
playing a game-high 31 minutes, 46 seconds.
Not until the final minute of Colorado's 4-2 win--when fans
chanted, "Ray! Ray!"--did Bourque allow his emotions to
percolate. As the horn sounded, he grabbed the puck for a
keepsake and took a brief spin around the rink, pointing to the
crowd. Boston right wing Bill Guerin, who had received a nasty,
unpenalized crosscheck from Bourque in the first period,
lingered near the bench and quietly tapped his stick on the ice
in homage. Said Guerin, "He deserved it." --Michael Farber
More Shots Are On Target
The NHL's stand against obstruction this season has not only led
to a modest increase in scoring--through Sunday there had been
141 more goals scored than at the same point last season--but
also brought a welcome change in the way goals are produced.
There has been a corresponding decline in shots on goal (626
fewer over that span), and the two stats combined add credence
to anecdotal evidence that with less clutching and grabbing,
snipers are getting into prime scoring positions rather than
taking low-percentage shots from the perimeter.
With two weeks left in the season, 35 players had scored 30 or
more goals--more than double the 15 who had reached that standard
at the same point last season. "There's more flow to games than
there was a year ago," says Kings general manager Dave Taylor.
"The crackdown was to help skill players, and it's done that."
After the league mandated the crackdown last summer, referees
called obstruction-related penalties at an unprecedented rate in
the first two months of this season. The number of such penalties
has decreased dramatically since then (the rate of slashing
infractions in March, for example, was down 50% from late
November) not because refs are backing off but because players
are finally learning to keep their hands to themselves.
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE AS YOUR PLAYOFF GOALTENDER?
A Vezina Trophy finalist last year, he was shaky in St. Louis's
first-round upset by the Sharks. This season, through Sunday, the
30-year-old was 21-16-8 with a 2.40 GAA and .896 save percentage.
The rookie went 8-10 in AHL playoff games over the past three
seasons and has wrested a share of the No. 1 job in St. Louis.
The 24-year-old was 19-8-2 with a 2.10 GAA and .910 save
The Verdict: Coach Joel Quenneville is still undecided about who
will start in the postseason, but we would go with Johnson.