DEVILS BOTTLE THE LIGHTNING.
I had predicted the New Jersey Devils would eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, and in a way, I was right.
It took the Devils six periods of hockey in Game Five this past Friday to finally eliminate a plucky Lightning team that refused to quit. New Jersey turned the trick in five games, but the series was much closer than that statistic indicates.
The Lightning deserve full marks for their strong play, not only in the playoffs, but in the regular season performance that got them back into the post-season for the first time in six years.
There will be a little bit of finger-pointing in assessing blame for the Bolts second-round demise. Some will point out starter Nikolai Khabibulin didn't play as well as he did in the first round, to the point where in the critical Game Five, he was replaced by backup John Grahame. There are already whispers Khabibulin, who didn't take the benching kindly, might sulk and seek a trade in the off-season.
Don't count on it. "The 'Bulin Wall" is a proud player, so naturally he wasn't thrilled by not getting the call for Game Five. But his bruised feelings will be healed by the accolades for a job well done this past season. He'll undoubtedly use his Game Five benching as motivation to further solidify his starting role next season, which will only make the Bolts stronger.
Some will also try to dump on Vincent Lecavalier, who didn't have as good a series against the Devils as he did against the Capitals, particularly when compared to teammates like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Prospal.
But folks shouldn't be too harsh on the budding young star. It took him a few seasons to mature into the scoring talent he was this year. This year's playoffs will be another page in the maturation of this promising player, particularly when facing a strong defensive club like New Jersey.
Lecavalier will rise above this because he'll learn from it. In turn, that will make him an even better player in the future.
The Lightning were defeated simply because, as game as they were, they were no match for the experience of the New Jersey Devils.
Remember, this is a Devils team that has years of post-season experience, both good (their two Cup wins, their four prior trips to the Conference Finals) and bad (early eliminations in the late-90s and last season). They're a veteran-laden club, with many players who've been on Cup winners before, who know what it takes to win it all.
Yes, the Devils play a boring defensive system. It's not pretty or exciting to watch (unless you're either a Devils fan or a supporter of that type of hockey), but it gets the job done.
New Jersey simply squeezed the offensive life out of this promising, exciting, fast-paced young Lightning team. It made for the dullest series in this year's playoffs, but it propelled the Devils back to the Conference Finals for the third time in four years.
For the Lightning, they can take the experience from this series and learn from it. They don't need to adopt the same style as the Devils. They just need to learn how to counter it and create more scoring chances.
Expect the Bolts to work on that for next year. They've served notice they're not a fluke or a flash-in-the-pan. They'll be serving notice next season, and for years to come, that they're not a "one-trick pony".
As for the Devils, they get some valuable time off while awaiting the winner of the Senators-Flyers series. Whoever wins that has the unenviable task of squaring off with the best defensive team in this year's playoffs. One that has been here before. One that knows what it takes to win it all.
Hart Trophy (most valuable player): Martin Brodeur, New Jersey; Peter Forsberg, Colorado; Markus Naslund, Vancouver.
Brodeur is one of the best goalies in the league, while Naslund is the key component to the Canucks success. Still, neither holds a candle to Forsberg, perhaps the most complete forward in the NHL. He deserves the Hart.
James Norris Memorial (outstanding defenceman): Derian Hatcher, Dallas; Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit; Al MacInnis, St. Louis.
MacInnis, a former Norris winner, proved at age 39 that he's still among the elite defencemen in the league. Lidstrom is also a former winner and himself one of the very best. Hatcher has never been given his due throughout his career of belonging with the best, which he does. Yeah, it'll probably go to Lidstrom again, but I'd love to see Hatcher get the recognition he deserves.
Vezina (outstanding goaltender): Ed Belfour, Toronto; Martin Brodeur, New Jersey; Marty Turco, Dallas.
"Eddie the Eagle" proved his critics wrong by chalking up one of his best seasons in years, and was perhaps the main reason the Maple Leafs recovered strongly from a slow start. Turco is a rising talent between the pipes, with the best goals-against and save-percentage this season. However, Martin Brodeur led the league in wins (an unprecedented fourth 40-plus victory season) and shutouts (9) and posted a strong 2.02 GAA. Brodeur is long-overdue for recognition.
Calder Memorial (outstanding rookie): Barret Jackman, St. Louis; Rick Nash, Columbus; Henrik Zetterberg, Detroit.
Nash made Columbus GM Doug MacLean look like a genius for trading up in last June's draft. Zetterberg quickly found his niche with the Wings and seems poised for an outstanding offensive career. But Jackman stepped in as a raw rookie and admirably filled the gap on the Blues blueliner left by a sidelined Chris Pronger. No small feat and worth of the Calder.
Lady Byng Memorial (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct): Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit; Mike Modano, Dallas; Alexander Mogilny, Toronto.
Lidstrom's skills demonstrates one doesn't have to take penalties to play a strong defensive game. Modano has always been a class act and one of the cleanest players in the game. But Mogilny's penalty minutes were lower than both these guys, which should see him get the nod.
Frank J. Selke (outstanding defensive forward): Jere Lehtinen, Dallas; John Madden, New Jersey; Wes Walz, Minnesota.
Madden is a former winner who's probably going to captain the Devils when Scot Stevens finally retires. His two-way skills are of the first order. Walz has been a revelation in Minnesota, where his strong defensive play is one of the reasons the Wild have done so well this season. Lehtinen, like Madden, is a former Selke winner, and has rebounded after a couple of average, injury-hampered years to have perhaps his best season. He gets my vote.
Jack Adams Award (outstanding coach): Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota; Jacques Martin, Ottawa; John Tortorella, Tampa Bay.
Lemaire, a former Adams winner, has done an outstanding job in Minnesota, so much so his system is admiringly called a "cult". Martin, another former winner, did a tremendous job in keeping his club focussed through off-season turmoil in guiding them to the President's trophy. But my vote goes to Tortorella, who deserves recognition for turning a league laughingstock into a division champion.
As the second round of the 2003 playoffs draws to a close, the matchup for the Eastern Conference Finals is set, while one of the two Western Conference finalists has been determined.
In the East, the Ottawa Senators advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history by eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. In doing so, they may have finally ditched their reputation as playoff "choke-artists".
Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, midnight has not yet struck for the Cinderalla Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Having shocked the hockey worlds by sweeping the defending Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the first round, the Ducks bounced the West's top seeded team, the Dallas Stars, in six games, and in turn are gaining a following that believes the Ducks are no longer a post-season fluke.
For the Senators, they demonstrated their dominance as the league's top team against a Flyers club that some believed had the parts to go all the way.
Yes, the Flyers had more experience and seemingly more firepower, plus a seasoned head coach who earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1999 with Dallas. When they rallied to knot the series 2-2, many of the Philly faithful were breathing easier. After all, goaltender Roman Cechmanek was answering his critics by posting two shutout victories over Ottawa. The blueline didn't appear hampered at all by the absence of Eric Desjardins, and while the offence wasn't scoring as much as hoped, they were playing coach Ken Hitchcock's defensive system to perfection, convincingly so in Game Four when they shut down the Sens vaunted offence.
That was enough to have Sens fans chewing their nails again, as visions of blown series past danced ominously in their heads. Ottawa coach Jacques Martin was being outcoached, they grumbled. Their fowards weren't picking it up, they complained. They were allowing the Flyers to push them around, they moaned. In both Ottawa and Philadelphia, there was talk of the Senators poised for another heartbreaking post-season collapse.
Not this time.
This is not the same Senators team from years past. This is a club that has grown together, that shared the heartache of those past disappointments, that bore the brunt of being tarred "chokes", that learned from these bitter experiences about what it took to win in the playoffs.
This was also not a team that would tolerate being pushed around, who not only brought in some experienced grit during the season, but also learned how to stand up for themselves in the rough going.
This was also a team that bonded together during the uncertainty over the club's finances and their continued existence in Ottawa.
In Games Five and Six, the Senators roared back and showed their new-found resolve, blasting the Flyers 5-2 and 5-1 respectively enroute to their first-ever berth in the Conference Finals.
Bottom line here is the Senators key players stepped up when it counted most, while the Flyers best simply weren't.
Ottawa got tremendous performances from team captain Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara and Patrick Lalime. They stood up to be counted and led the charge for the Senators.
The same couldn't be said for the Flyers best players. Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Simon Gagne, Tony Amonte, Mark Recchi, and Roman Cechmanek failed to seize the moment when they seemingly had the Senators reeling after Game Four. In the final two games, they were non-factors.
Worse, the Flyers vaunted defensive game broke down horribly in Games Five and Six. Goaltender Cechmanek will wear the brunt of the blame for the Flyers elimination, but to be fair, of the nine goals scored against him in those final two games, only three were his fault. The rest were the result of poor support from his defencemen, who did a terrible job clearing rebounds and keeping the opportunistic Sens from cashing in.
Still, those final two games could've been closer if the Flyers offence had picked up the slack. But it was obvious watching this series progress that the Senators forwards were younger, faster and tougher, while many of the Flyers key veterans showed their age.
And while the fans and media in Philly call for change, including the usual cry for the head of GM Bob Clarke, the Senators prepare for their showdown with the New Jersey Devils.
In the West, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks have made believers out of many observers, including yours truly, with their incredible efforts in this year's post-season.
No team in NHL history had ever knocked off the first and second seeds in their respective Conference...until the 2003 Mighty Ducks.
Sure, it was easy to chalk the first-round upset of the Red Wings to luck and a hot goalie. While the Ducks did play a better team game in the final two games of that series, the powerful Wings dominated them. Were it not for netminder J-S Gigeure's heroics, it would've been a four-game sweep all right...for Detroit.
So going into this series, few but a growing legion of die-hard Ducks fans expected Anaheim to upset the mighty Dallas Stars. After all, the Stars were a younger, hungrier, more physical team than Detroit. They wouldn't be caught off-guard by the plucky Ducks and their goaltending hero.
Yes, Dallas was younger, hungrier and more physical, and yes, they were prepared for the Ducks. But when the dust settled, it was Anaheim advancing to the Conference Finals in six hard-fought games.
The story this time out wasn't simply Gigeure. While the Ducks goaltender continued to play brilliantly, it was the effort of his teammates that was the story of the series.
Put simply, the Mighty Ducks played a mighty fine team game, getting strong performances from everyone in their roster. The upset of the Red Wings was because of Giguere, but the upset of the Stars was a thoroughly team effort.
The Ducks got terrific efforts from "name" players like Paul Kariya, Adam Oates and Petr Sykora, but what stood out for me was the play of several players who were "cast-offs" from other clubs.
Defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh is one of them. While a tremendous offensive talent, "Ozo" has been maligned for years for his horrid defensive game, so much so that he's bounced from several teams in the past few seasons before landing in Anaheim mid-way through this season.
Instead of being a defensive liability, Ozolinsh emerged as not only the Ducks best defenceman, but the best defenceman of the Ducks-Stars series, and one of the best in the playoffs.
When Anaheim head coach Mike Babcock was asked how he's turned Ozolinsh's game around, he stated it was simply a matter of reducing his icetime from over 30 minutes per game to 20-22 minutes.
Was it really that simple? Or has Babcock merely found a way to reach Ozolinsh that his previous coaches never could find? Heck, for that alone, he deserves the Coach of the Year award!
Another cast-off who's risen to the post-season challenge is Rob Niedermayer. Given up by two teams for not playing to expectations, long considered a disappointment, Niedermayer has emerged in this year's playoffs as arguably the Ducks best two-way forward.
He's earned first-and-second line work, played well on the penalty kill and in other checking roles, and looking like a season pro in any role Babcock wants him to play. Like Ozolinsh, the unflappable Babcock has found the way to motivate Niedermayer.
Or how about veteran winger Steve Thomas? Considered washed-up by the Chicago Blackhawks who dealt him to the Ducks at the trade deadline for a draft pick, "Stumpy" has been rejuvenated in Anaheim. He regained his scoring touch in the Ducks final regular season games, but most importantly, he carried that touch into the playoffs. When leadership or timely goals were needed by the Ducks, Thomas has been there, playing as though he were ten years younger.
It's the efforts of players like these that propelled the Ducks past the heavily-favoured Stars.
For all their depth, the Stars simply didn't get the same effort from their supporting cast as the Ducks got from theirs.
It's a bitter pill to swallow for the Stars, who spent millions over the past two seasons for veteran talent. Dallas fans are still in shock watching their high-priced team fall to a club whose payroll is half the size.
Like the fans and media in Philadelphia, those in Dallas will be pondering their club's misfortunate throughout the summer.
Would it have made a difference if Bill Guerin and Pierre Turgeon had been healthy throughout the playoffs? Possibly, but then again, Turgeon and other notable veterans, like Scott Young and Claude Lemieux, were either hobbled by injury or slowed by age.
Goaltending Marty Turco couldn't be blamed for this disaster, but questions arose about the defencemen in front of him. Once considered arguably the best in the league, the Stars blueline corps had difficulty containing the supposedly lesser Mighty Ducks. Team captain Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, Richard Matvichuk, Daryl Sydor and Phillipe Boucher appeared at times to be slow and bewildered throughout the series. Could age be finally catching up to the Stars blueline corps?
And changes could be coming for the Stars defence this summer. Hatcher is due for unrestricted free agency. While there will be those who will use this series as justification not to re-sign him, is it really a wise move to allow Hatcher, who at 31 is still in his prime, to walk away? There's talk of either Matvichuk or Sydor being moved, but would their replacements, either via trade, free agency or their farm system, be an improvement?
And what of those veteran forwards, like Turgeon, Young, Lemieux and Muller? They're not getting any younger, and for the most part looked well past their due date, not just in the playoffs, but during the regular season. Lemieux and Muller are easy enough to cast off, but Turgeon and Young carry hefty contracts that'll be tough to move or buy out.
While the Stars and their following ponder their future, the Mighty Ducks prepare to meet the winner of the Vancouver-Minnesota series.
May heaven help whoever wins that series. The Ducks are not a fluke. They're not lucky. They're not a "one-trick pony".
Any team that can convincingly defeat the top two seeds in a Conference, a feat never before accomplished, is none of those things.
They're for real.
It was a stunner for the ages.
The highly-touted Vancouver Canucks, a rising force in the Western Conferece, possessing one of the top offensive lines in the league, held a three games to one lead over the underdog Minnesota Wild. They were poised to deliver the knockout blow heading into Game Five on home ice. So confident were the Canucks, hulking forward Todd Bertuzzi told the press "there will be no Game Six".
What followed was perhaps one of the worst collapses in Stanley Cup history.
The Wild, staring elimination in the face for the second straight time this spring, roared back to win the next three games by convincing margins to eliminate the Canucks and advance to the Conference Finals.
Full marks must be given to the plucky Minnesota squad, who became the first team in NHL history to stage consecutive comebacks from 3-1 series deficits.
Head coach Jacques Lemaire never gave up on his charges and never panicked. He had his young team believing in themselves. Like they did in Round One against the Colorado Avalanche, the Wild knew if they could win the fifth game, they knew they stood a chance to come back and win it all. When that aim was accomplished, and in a convincing manner by a score of 7-2, one could practically feels the tide of the series shift in their favour.
What struck me about the Wild in these playoffs is how patient and tenacious they are. This is team that simply doesn't quit, no matter how much the score or the series margin favours their oppposition. They just keep coming, creating chances and waiting for their opponents to make a mistake. When that mistake is made, the Wild pounce and capitalize.
For a club that's only been in existence for three years and playing in their first post-season, the Wild are playing like they've been around much longer.
On a team that's been predominantly known for their head coach's defensive system, several Wild players are beginning to make names for themselves.
Veteran forward Andrew Brunette has been chipping in with timely goals. Checking forward Wes Walz has become a late-blooming defensive star, and defenceman Willie Mitchell is winning fame for his gritty play despite suffering serious injuries to his face and right wrist.
But of all the Wild, the one stand-out is forward Marian Gaborik.
After struggling with his scoring touch in the second half of the regular season, Gaborik regained that touch with a vengeance in the post-season. Not only does he lead his team in scoring, but also all playoff scorers.
He gave the Canucks fits throughout the series, as they struggled in vain to contain him. Gaborik was unquestionable the most valuable player in that series.
It's one thing to be a thirty-goal scorer in the regular season, but quite another to step up and perform in the playoffs as Gaborik has done. What we're seeing now is a rising young talent taking his first real steps toward superstardom.
As much as the Wild deserve kudos for this series victory, they wouldn't have done it without the Canucks. The Vancouver squad was their own worst enemy after Game Four.
Start with the shaky goaltending of Dan Cloutier. Up until Game Five, "Cloots" had seemingly answered his critics who claimed he was not a capable starting goalie in the playoffs. After all, it was his play that buoyed the Canucks to their own comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the St. Louis Blues in Round One and to a commanding 3-1 series lead against the Wild.
But Cloutier's performances in Games Five through Seven are not ones that he will cherish. He simply failed to come through with the type of dominating goaltending required to deliver the knock out punch to the Wild.
Cloutier wasn't solely to blame for the defensive collapse. Vancouver's blueline corps, which had been so dominant in the first half of this series, were simply terrible in the final three games. Many of the goals scored against Cloutier were the result of his defencemen simply not playing well in their own zone. They provided the Wild with countless opportunities, which the Minnesota forwards were only too happy to act on.
Another contributing factor to Vancouver's defeat was the play of their top scoring line. Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison showed up less and less on the scoresheet as the series progressed. With the top line a non-factor offensively in those final critical games, the Canucks were doomed.
All of these factors stem from over-confidence. That trait was the deciding factor, and because of it, the Vancouver Canucks ultimately defeated themselves.
After taking a supposedly insurmountable 3-1 series lead, the Canucks simply stopped playing hard. The effort that had put them in the driver's seat was not there anymore.
It was apparent in Games Five and Six. The Canucks came out charging hard in the first period of both games, hoping to gain the early lead that would crush the Wild's spriit. But when the Wild weathered each storm and chalked up the first goal, the Canucks sagged noticeably.
By Game Seven, the Canucks confidence was now fragile. Up 2-0, that confidence was shattered when the Wild cut the margin to one goal. One could sense the fear and panic in the Canucks, and their fans. The Wild surely did, scenting it like sharks in a blood-frenzy.
The end was never in doubt after that. The Wild tied the game, then won it to eliminate the Canucks.
The Vancouver Canucks are a very good hockey team. In some ways, they remind me of the Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s. Talented, fun to watch and loaded with promise, those Oilers teams had to suffer growing pains when their own over-confidence and lack of effort contributed to playoff disappointment.
The Canucks are in the same boat. There may be some areas that need to be addressed (goaltending, scoring depth), but there is plenty of talent on this team, enough to make it a legitimate Cup contender.
But like those Oilers teams, the Canucks are having to learn their lessons the hard way.
And the biggest lesson of all is perhaps the most time-honoured: never, ever underestimate your opponent.
How do you stop a team of destiny?
The Minnesota Wild found out the hard way, joining the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars on the list of teams eliminated from post-season competition at the hands of the surging Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Going into this series, the feeling was the Ducks might struggle against the Wild's team concept of defence. After all, the Minnesota club was themselves playoff underdogs, having rallied from two straight 3-1 series deficits to defeat offensive powerhouses from Colorado and Vancouver. And while the top-seeded Stars and defending champion Red Wings were talent-laden teams, the Ducks had never faced a defensive minded team like Minnesota.
Instead, what we saw was total domination by the Mighty Ducks.
A four-game sweep of the Wild, who were held to just one goal throughout the entire series.
Think about that: one goal in four games. How can that be possible?
It's starts with outstanding goaltending. Critics of the Ducks have been waiting for JS Giguere to crack under the pressure as the playoffs rolled on, but they've been waiting in vain.
There are those who believe "Jiggy's" performance has been enhanced by rigged shoulder pads, which make him look bigger in the net. Some have whined his leg pads are too large. Yet Giguere's equipment size complies with league regulations.
The "rising shoulder pads" which give him a hunchback look are a topic for debate which undoubtedly will arise during the off-season, but let's face the facts here: if Giguere were an average goaltender who's riding a lucky streak as some claim, the Ducks would'nt have made it this far.
If it were all about the equipment, Garth Snow would have the Islanders battling the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals. Or would've made the Philadelphia Flyers Stanley Cup champs back in 1997.
Strong goaltending is what makes a winner. What we've seen of Giguere this season is drawing comparisons to Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986, two great goaltenders who in their youth carried two underdog Montreal Canadiens teams to Cup glory. And like Dryden and Roy, Giguere could become the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP if he can carry off his heroics for one more series.
As these playoffs have progressed, it's becoming obvious that the Ducks success doesn't solely ride on Giguere. His teammates have been steadily improving their performances with each passing game. Never was that more apparent than in the Conference Finals against the Wild.
What the Ducks did as a team was expose the key weakness in the Wild's game plan, that being a crucial lack of offence throughout their roster.
Marian Gaborik is an emerging superstar, Wes Walz has become one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and Andrew Brunette is a reliable veteran scorer. Beyond them, however, the Wild's offensive punch sags noticeably. The Wild's offensive totals in these playoffs were bolstered in the previous series against Vancouver, when the Canucks defensive game and goaltending collapsed.
Facing better goaltending and a defensive system as strong as theirs, the Wild's offence was snuffed out. In shutting down the Wild, the Ducks keyed on Minnesota's best forwards. The end result was one goal, scored by Brunette, and none for Gaborik and Walz. None of the Wild's other forwards were good enough to step up and fill the void.
Meanwhile, another of Anaheim's strengths - offensive production throughout their roster - was on display once again in this series. In Game One, it was Petr Sykora, set up by Mike LeClerc for the game's only goal. In Game Two, lowscoring blueliner Kurt Sauer, set up by Steve Rucchin to open the scoring, and Rob Niedermayer on an unassisted effort, both goals shorthanded efforts. In Game Three, the Ducks top scorers put on a show, with Paul Kariya, Adam Oates, Sykora, Rucchin and rookie Stanislav Chistov contributing. In Game Four, it was Oates, a playmaker, potting two powerplay goals.
As in their previous series, the Ducks weren't reliant on their top scoring line to carry them. As head coach Mike Babcock pointed out following Game Four of the Conference Finals, the one factor that has impressed him the most is the offensive contributions from throughout his roster. Put simply, the Ducks are making the most of their chances.
The Wild have nothing to hang their heads over. While it undoubtedly hurt to have come so far only to come up so short, it must be remembered that they had played two long, hard-fought seven games series prior to this one. They were a tired hockey club going into this series, and it showed.
Still, the future is bright for this young hockey club. Their goaltending is sound, their team game impressive, their coaching superb. As youngsters like Gaborik, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nick Schultz and Willie Mitchell develop and mature, they'll be an even tougher hockey club to face down the road. To have accomplished this much in only three years of existence in noteworthy and serves notice to the rest of the league that this club is to be taken very seriously.
So now the Ducks await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. That may be another factor that works in their favour as they prepare for the Stanley Cup Finals. By dispatching the Wings, Stars and Wild, they've ensured themselves plenty of time to rest and allow any hidden injuries to heal.
Healthy, rested and relaxed going into the Stanley Cup Finals, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks are going to be a tough opponent for whoever emerges from the East.
Who needs offensive production to go far in the playoffs?
The New Jersey Devils certainly haven't, relying on the outstanding goaltending of Martin Brodeur and their suffocating defensive system to defeat the President's Trophy winning Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Granted, the Devils didn't make it easy for themselves in this series, squandering a three games to one series lead, and nearly blowing Game 7 in the third period. Thankfully for the Devils, a timely goal by Jeff Friesen late in the period broke a 2-2 tie, as well as the hearts of the Senators and their fans.
It would be easy for the Senators critics to proclaim another post-season choke by the club from Ottawa, that once again they couldn't win the big games when it counted most.
Those folks, of course, are dead wrong.
Only an ignoramus would dismiss the strides the Senators have made over the past two years. This is a team that has made notable improvement in that time, thanks to a core of good young talent that, in most cases, haven't reached their prime yet.
The Senators march to the Conference Finals was no fluke, as they shrugged off adversity and grew more confident as the playoffs progressed. Indeed, they dumped the label of playoff choke-artists by battling back from the 3-1 hole they dug for themselves against the Devils.
But like all growing young powerhouse teams, the Senators had to learn the hard way just what it takes to earn the spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
Not taking anything away from the Devils system or Brodeur's goaltending, but the Senators did have a hand in beating themselves.
In the first four games, the Senators failed to put forth a consistent effort.
In Game One, they dominated the first, third and overtime periods, but an indifferent second period allowed the Devils to rally back to tie the game. In Game Two, the effort simply wasn't there, as the Devils won easily 4-1.
Game Three saw the Devils earn a 1-0 victory in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. Only the goaltending of Patrick Lalime kept the Sens from getting blown out again. Striving to do better in Game Four, the Sens dominated the first two periods, but a couple of soft goals against Lalime led to a general collapse as Ottawa was blown out 5-2.
It was a measure of the Senators character, and a display of how much they've improved, that they rallied back to beat the Devils in Games Five and Six to force a seventh and deciding game. Game Seven was a see-saw battle by both teams hungry to win, but anxious not to make mistakes.
Had the Senators played as well throughout the series as they did in Game One, it could've been they, rather than the Devils, heading to the Stanley Cup finals. They beat themselves as surely as New Jersey did.
One major reason for their downfall was the lack of offensive production from top players like Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat. The reasons for this was two-fold. First, the Devils clamped down on them with their tenacious checking at both ends of the ice. Second, the Senators showed a propensity to make one pass too many.
While the Devils top guns themselves have fired mostly blanks in this spring's playoffs, they nevertheless continue to shoot from almost anywhere at any time. If there's a chance for a shot on net, they take it, rather than look for a teammate who might be more open.
Wayne Gretzky once said you don't score on the shots you don't take. That should be a valuable lesson to the Ottawa Senators forwards. Too many times in this series, they had potential scoring chances nullified because they tried to make one more pass than necessary. No wonder their fans were screaming, "shoot, shoot!" every time the Sens hit the Devils zone.
Again, however, this is not to take away from the effort of the New Jersey Devils.
Their style may be dull, their offence is of the pop-gun variety, they lack flashy superstars, their general manager is an old-school martinet, their head coach position is a revolving door and off-ice intrigue seems to dog them every season, but there can be no doubt the Devils know how to get results.
This is their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals in four years, no small feat in this bloated league of endless seasons, spoiled players and boring hockey.
Critics will charge the Devils benefitted by the lessening "crackdown" on obstruction in the playoffs, and they're right...but only to a degree.
The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning also benefitted, as did the Ottawa Senators. Yet they're on the golf course while the Devils are in the Finals.
As noted earlier, the goaltending of Martin Brodeur and their near-flawless defensive system are the key factors.
Brodeur, in particular, has merited much praise in this spring's post-season than in years past. This has been perhaps his best playoff season to date, no small feat considering the much-discussed turmoil in his personal life.
His impending, messy divorce has generated as much ink as his on-ice play, which speaks more about the yellow journalism dogging the coverage of sports than of Brodeur's ability and professionalism, which should never have been in doubt.
Should the Devils win the Cup, and they have a very good shot at doing so, Brodeur will be the Conn Smythe winner.
And should he win the Smythe, Brodeur will undoubtedly give a shout-out to his teammates, whose tight checking defensive game has made his job a heckuva lot easier than it could've been, particularly against the Senators.
The Devils achilles heel remains their offensive game, which is puzzling when one considers the number of forwards who have genuine scoring ability. But that weakness, throughout the regular season and into these playoffs, has been ably covered by their defensive game.
New Jersey has long been reknowned - and reviled - for their trapping defensive system. That system appeared to be breaking down last season during a long period of off-ice turmoil, but head coach Pat Burns, hired last summer to bring back discipline and motivation to the Devils, has them returned to form.
Defensive hockey is what the Devils do best, and with the depth of two-way talent on their roster, Burns has them playing that game extremely well.
That's also a credit to the experience of this team, many of whom were around when the Devils won their last Stanley Cup in 2000. Leaders like team captain Scott Stevens, speedy checking forward John Madden, former Smythe winner Joe Nieuwendyk (who had two Cup rings with other clubs) and Brodeur have all stepped up and led by example. They've bought into Burns's system, which in turn has their teammates following their lead.
Yes, it makes for dull hockey. Indeed, the Devils-Lightning series ranks as one of the dullest series in this spring's playoffs.
But, it's successful. The Devils win not just because they play that style, but because of the depth of talent they have playing that style. A system will bring you some measure of success, but it's the level of talent on your team that will determine how much success it will bring you.
Make no mistake, the New Jersey Devils are talented. And that's something their opponents in the Cup finals, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, better not forget.
Or like the Ottawa Senators, they will learn the lesson the hard way.
For the New Jersey Devils to defeat the Anaheim Mighty Ducks:
- Martin Brodeur must continue his strong performance from the previous rounds.
- play a tough but clean game. Hit the Ducks at every opportunity and make them pay the price in front of the net and along the boards.
- continue their tight defensive play.
- own the slot in front of JS Giguere. Get in his face, nudge him, bump him and try to throw off his concentration. Don't give him a clear view of the point shots.
- more offensive production from their forwards, notably Elias and Gomez. One or both must step up, particularly if Nieuwendyk is sidelined or hampered because of his knee injury.
For the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to defeat the New Jersey Devils:
- JS Giguere must out-play Brodeur.
- stick to the system that got them here and be patient.
- Overcome the Devils experience factor and the pressure of being in the Finals.
- more offensive production from Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora. While the Ducks have been getting clutch scoring throughout their roster, they need these two to step up more.
- the powerplay must improve. The Ducks made it to the Finals despite having the worst powerplay in the postseason. Against the Devils, as the Senators discovered, that can be costly.