Jersey Swamped Led by diminutive second-year defenseman Brian Rafalski, the deep and talented Devils overwhelmed the Penguins

May 27, 2001

Devils come in many guises, and as the Pittsburgh Penguins can
tell you, they can hurt you in many ways. There are brutish
Devils (defenseman Scott Stevens) and ornery ones (center Bobby
Holik) and those who hound you demonically (center John Madden).
There's also a stealthy imp named Brian Rafalski, the Devil who
breaks the mold.

At 5'9" and 190 pounds, Rafalski is the shortest defenseman in
the playoffs, and he doesn't traffic in the welts and bruises
that New Jersey players have been leaving on opponents
throughout the postseason. Rafalski's mark has been most visible
on the scoreboard: After stinging the Penguins with two goals
and an assist in a 5-0 trouncing last Saturday that gave New
Jersey a three-games-to-one series advantage, he led all
defensemen in playoff scoring with seven goals and 14 points.

Only Stevens had played more postseason minutes for the Devils
than Rafalski, and no New Jersey defender had a better
plus-minus rating than Rafalski's +10. The second-year
defenseman has emerged as one of the favorites for the Conn
Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. "I can't think about that now,"
Rafalski said after Saturday's game. "The time for that is after
we get to the finals or after we win [the Cup]."

The Devils appear on their way to doing both. In blanking
Pittsburgh in consecutive games (Martin Brodeur shut out the
Penguins 3-0 in Game 3), New Jersey was dominant at every turn.
The Devils had done similar work in the first two games--the
exception being a span of 6:35 in Game 2 during which Pittsburgh
scored three times en route to a 4-2 win--and nothing was more
impressive than their manhandling of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir
Jagr, the world's two best offensive players. Both went goalless
in the first four games. "This reminds me of when we beat the
Red Wings in the finals in 1995," Holik said after Saturday's
game. "People have been asking if I'm surprised that the
Penguins are not doing anything offensively. They're not doing
anything because they can't. We're dictating how the game is
being played. We give them no room."

Despite Holik's comparison, these aren't the trap-happy Devils
coached by Jacques Lemaire in the mid-1990s. This season's New
Jersey team has an offensive explosiveness that Lemaire's clubs
never had, and the roster's uncommon alloy of toughness, skill
and speed enables these Devils, as defenseman Ken Daneyko says,
"to play any way you want it, whether it's tight defensively,
physical or wide open."

Indeed, New Jersey is the NHL's most adaptable team. After
outhitting the rough-and-tough Toronto Maple Leafs in the second
round, the Devils were keeping the Penguins' fabulous forwards
in check with a calm, well-crafted defense. They had forced
Pittsburgh's forwards to the outside all series and, when
nursing leads, sealed off the neutral zone. The Penguins had
fewer than 10 good scoring opportunities in Games 2 and 3
combined. "Wherever you go, it seems they've got more guys,"
Jagr said after Saturday's game. "They didn't give us anything."

As in New Jersey's title run last spring, the basis of the
Devils' success lies in their superb positioning. That explains
why Rafalski, 27, has fit in so well since he signed with the
club as a free agent in July 1999. Though he has decent
upper-body strength, Rafalski rarely asserts himself as a
punishing checker, instead relying on his back-skating skills
and his ability to angle players off the puck. Rafalski and
Scott Niedermayer are the defensemen New Jersey most relies on
to move the puck--Rafalski quarterbacks the first power-play
unit from the right point. He is also a strong enough defender
that he has spent much of the past two seasons playing alongside
Stevens against opposing teams' top lines.

Stevens and Rafalski had remained partners this postseason until
the waning seconds of Game 4 of the second round, when Toronto's
Tie Domi attacked Niedermayer with an elbow to the head. With
Niedermayer sidelined with a concussion for the ensuing four
games, Devils coach Larry Robinson shuffled his pairings, moving
Daneyko next to Stevens and using Rafalski with Sean O'Donnell
against less formidable lines. The diminished defensive
responsibility freed Rafalski, who scored seven points in six
games after the switch.

"I expected a lot out of myself this year," says Rafalski, who in
the regular season was third on the team at +36. "Last year was a
real whirlwind."

The whirlwind was triggered when the Penguins upset New Jersey in
the first round in 1999. In that series Devils general manager
Lou Lamoriello recognized his team's need for an offensive
defenseman to complement Niedermayer, and he instructed his
scouting staff to unearth the best free agent at that position.
His staff recommended Rafalski, who had just finished a
point-per-game season for HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish Elite
League. "We'd known he could skate and had good hands since he
was in college," says Lamoriello. "But we shied away because of
his height."

You might say that Rafalski, a native of Dearborn, Mich., has
been doing the devil's bidding since he graduated from Wisconsin
in the summer of 1995, when, with the tobacco industry under
fire, he worked briefly for Philip Morris selling cigarettes
store-to-store. He was fresh off a solid career at Wisconsin,
where he had resisted the urgings of Badgers coach Jeff Sauer to
move to forward to enhance his chances of playing in the NHL.
(Only the Montreal Canadiens' 5'8" Francis Bouillon is shorter
among NHL defensemen.) Rafalski went undrafted that summer, and
after failing to land a free-agent tryout, he took the first
hockey job he was offered--in Europe. "It wasn't bad," says
Rafalski, who played one season in Sweden and three more in
Finland. "I figured I'd have a 12- or 15-year career in Europe
and then come home. But I never stopped thinking about the NHL,
and I never stopped working."

One thing Rafalski worked on was his wrist shot, flicking scores
of pucks before each game. Today, Rafalski's wrister is like a
tailing fastball: dangerous as much for its movement as its
speed. "He handled the puck real well as far back as high
school," says Penguins defenseman Ian Moran, who played with and
against Rafalski in U.S. tournaments growing up. "With that shot
he's a central part of their defense."

Rafalski had a solid 32 points as a rookie in 1999-2000, and he
followed that by leading New Jersey defensemen with 52 points
this season. His emergence in the NHL, as well as his experience
on the larger ice surface of international rinks, means Rafalski
will almost certainly be invited to play for the U.S. in the
2002 Olympics. "We were excited to find Brian," says Lamoriello.
"But did we expect him to be this kind of an impact player? No
way."

Pittsburgh felt that impact early in the first period of Game 3
when Rafalski, gamboling to join a three-on-two rush, threaded
his way through several Penguins and one-timed a pass from
Alexander Mogilny to open the scoring. In Game 4, Rafalski
tallied the first of his two goals when he unleashed a blast from
the point that went through traffic and dipped between the legs
of goalie Johan Hedberg to give the Devils a 2-0 lead in the
second period. "That was the big goal," says Holik. "We were
controlling the game, but at 1-0 against that team we weren't
comfortable."

New Jersey is remarkably balanced--in the postseason through
Sunday, six players had at least five goals, and seven forwards
had averaged between 15:21 and 18:31 of ice time a game--and its
dominance has come from a blend of individual expression and
unified commitment. As he drove to his New Jersey home late last
Saturday night, Lamoriello reflected on the ensemble he's
assembled, including Rafalski. "It's like an orchestra with many
different instruments working to make one grand piece of music,"
he said. "Each player plays his own way, but only if it conforms
to the larger objective. Brian has played his part very, very
well."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Sticking it to 'em Aggressive Devils like Jason Arnott (in white) clamped down on Andrew Ference and the Penguins. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Nose for the net With a wicked wrist shot, Rafalski led defensemen in playoff scoring with seven goals and seven assists.

The Devils never expected Rafalski to be the impact player he
has become.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)