Even on the best of days northern New Jersey is a flat,
unattractive place. Power lines crisscross the skies, and a sea
of concrete gives way to strip-mall shores. Last Friday was
particularly dreary: heavy rain, a hard wind and roadways clogged
with drivers who believed that honking their horns would move
bumper-to-bumper traffic. To escape that gloom, all you had to do
was duck into the New Jersey Devils' practice facility in West
Orange, N.J. You would have found goalie Martin Brodeur clowning
about with a pair of purple-tinted shades set jauntily on his
brow, and you would have heard a lot of players saying things
such as, "We feel like we're in pretty good shape."
"You look for the down faces," New Jersey coach Larry Robinson
said that morning, "but everybody looks very upbeat." Why not?
The Devils were only down two games to one to the NHL's best
regular-season team, the Colorado Avalanche, in the Stanley Cup
finals. No team plays better when it's behind in a series than
New Jersey, which time and again rises from a messy bed only to
look deeply refreshed. So despite slumbering through long
stretches of inconsistent play in the first three games of the
series, the Devils woke up on Tuesday morning with a
three-games-to-two lead after a convincing 4-1 defeat of Colorado
in Game 5. On Thursday, New Jersey would have a chance to retain
the Stanley Cup at home.
The Devils play in the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which is
exactly what afflicts New Jersey fans. During the second period
of Game 4 against the Avalanche last Saturday, shortly after the
Devils had rallied to tie the score 1-1 and were resurrecting
their Cup hopes with an inspired stretch of offensive pressure,
the crowd roared its approval by chanting, "Rangers suck!" Like
their fans, the Devils thrive when they're reminded that there's
a more popular team nearby.
After the much-beloved Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins
upset New Jersey in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals last
month, opening the door for cynics to doubt the Devils'
superiority, New Jersey responded with its best three games of
the playoffs to win the series going away. "When people write or
talk bad about us, we say, 'Screw everybody,' and we play as a
team," says center John Madden. "When people start saying how
great we are, we drift and don't play well together. Just write
bad about us, and we'll be set, O.K.?"
Sorry, John. These Devils are so good that when they play well,
you wonder how they ever lose. New Jersey's series-tying 3-2 win
over Colorado in Game 4 was every bit as lopsided as its 35-12
shots-on-goal advantage indicated. That game will be remembered
for the Devils' unceasing control--the puck was in the
Avalanche's end for nearly 10 minutes more than it was in New
Jersey's--and for the plays and misplays of goaltender Patrick
Roy. His snuffing of the Devils' relentless attack had Colorado
clinging to a 2-1 lead in the third period. Then the goal that
turned the fortunes in the game, and perhaps the series, came
with 12 minutes to play, when Roy badly mishandled the puck
behind the net as New Jersey left wing Jay Pandolfo bore down on
him. Pandolfo shoveled the loose puck in front, and center Scott
Gomez knocked it into the empty net. Nine minutes later right
wing Petr Sykora scored the game-winner.
"Maybe that was a break," Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said of
Roy's miscue. "But those breaks are going to happen when you're
on a team the way we were on these guys. We dominated from the
"It was only a matter of time before they scored," said Colorado
defenseman Jon Klemm. "They kept coming and coming."
Yet how can a club capable of so thoroughly controlling the
powerful Avalanche play the way New Jersey did in losing Games 1
and 3 by a combined score of 8-1? These are the same Devils who
crushed the vastly inferior Carolina Hurricanes for the first
three games in the opening round and then let the next two slip
away before closing out the series. This is the team that played
sloppily and often lazily in falling behind the Toronto Maple
Leafs three games to two in the second round and then trounced
them in Games 6 and 7. On their way to winning the Cup last
season, the Devils were alarmingly lethargic in falling behind
the Philadelphia Flyers three games to one in the Eastern
Conference finals. After New Jersey lost 5-0 to Colorado in Game
1 of this year's Cup finals, Robinson was asked if he'd seen his
team play a worse playoff game during his two seasons at the
helm. "Oh, sure," he said. "We do that, you know."
When the Devils go awry, it's because they rely too heavily on
their considerable individual talents--seven players scored more
than 20 goals in the regular season--and not enough on the
seamless, smashmouth hockey that gives them the look of a
classic four-lines-deep champion. Put New Jersey out in a game
it can afford to lose, and it drifts out of position on defense,
makes thoughtless passes and sleepskates until some misfortune
jolts it to life. When the Devils are on, they are the
highest-paid group of blue-collar workers in New Jersey, worthy
of the hard hats on their heads. "Maybe this team likes to feel
danger," says nine-year veteran center Bob Corkum. "The bad news
is that we get ourselves into these situations. The good news is
that we respond well to them."
That the Devils had done much of their best work against Colorado
while shorthanded was wholly consistent with their M.O. Corkum's
goal in Game 2--New Jersey's first score of the series--developed
as a shorthanded rush and went in just after the penalty expired.
With the Devils a man down early in Game 4, wing Patrik Elias's
neat wrister beat Roy for New Jersey's first goal.
An examination of the Devils' roster reveals why they can
overcome adversity: Madden grew up in a housing project in
Toronto; Gomez, who was born in Alaska and whose mother is
Colombian, is the first Hispanic to play in the NHL; Daneyko is a
recovering alcoholic; Corkum was nearly banished to the minors in
February before New Jersey acquired him from the Los Angeles
Kings; and Brodeur was blistered in the early rounds by lightly
regarded teams for three straight years before backstopping New
Jersey to the championship last season. "When something's hard
and you persevere, it's a better feeling than when someone hands
you something," says Madden. "A lot of people in this room feel
The Devils are rooted in the franchise's first years in New
Jersey during the mid-1980s. In an era when 16 of 21 teams
reached the playoffs, the Devils went five straight years without
a postseason berth. Such losing left a nasty mark on the
organization and ensured its faithful of an enduring inferiority
complex. What better team to play Grinch to the Christmas-in-June
story that most of the country was rooting for in this series:
Will revered Avalanche defenseman Ray Bourque finally get to hold
If he does--and given the Devils' inconsistent ways, no one was
dismissing Bourque's chances, even after Colorado's loss on
Monday--he will owe a debt of gratitude to Avalanche center Joe
Sakic, who has been a one-man offensive charge. Sakic's cutting
ability and astonishingly quick release have been the centerpiece
of the Colorado attack. In 19 postseason games he had 23 points.
He'd also won 59% of his face-offs (his successful draw set up
Bourque's winning goal in Game 3), and his play had rendered the
Avalanche's May 9 loss of superstar center Peter Forsberg to a
ruptured spleen a virtual nonissue.
The Devils also lost players to injury in the postseason.
Naturally, those losses galvanized them. They roared back in the
second round after defenseman Scott Niedermayer was sidelined for
four games with a concussion. (Toronto's Tie Domi elbowed him in
the head in Game 4.) They won three of the next four matches
after wing Randy McKay was lost for the playoffs with a fractured
left hand in Game 1 of the finals. In Game 4 last Saturday,
first-line center Jason Arnott missed the last two periods after
being hit in the temple by a puck. (The injury also sidelined him
for Game 5.) Instead of withering, Arnott's linemates, Sykora and
Elias, turned in their most impassioned offensive performance of
the series. "We took it as a challenge to play well," said Elias.
"We like challenges."
The Devils' postseason has been reminiscent of a trip to the New
Jersey theme park Great Adventure, home to some of the world's
most spectacular roller coasters and a place where New
Jerseyites flock to seek their thrills and lose their lunches.
"Or," says Brodeur, "you could stay home and watch us. We'll
give you some highs and lows. I guess that's O.K. As long as we
end on a high."
we end on a high."