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Jersey Swamped
Kostya Kennedy
May 28, 2001
Led by diminutive second-year defenseman Brian Rafalski, the deep and talented Devils overwhelmed the Penguins
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May 28, 2001

Jersey Swamped

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

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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."

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