Rob Blake drifted in from the blue line to the right face-off circle and blasted the puck through the legs of New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, whose pads had formed one big tunnel of love for the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals in Denver last Saturday night. The third-period goal was the cotton candy near the end of a long night at the amusement park for the Avalanche and enough to keep Blake parked on the bench for the last 10 minutes as the opener of the most keenly anticipated final series in a dozen years droned to a 5-0 conclusion. Blake passed most of the time opening and closing the gate for his teammates, a job that usually pays closer to minimum wage than $5 million a year. He's one defenseman who does it all.
These Cup finals were hardly an open-and-shut case just because of Colorado's emphatic Game 1 victory. But the worst road game played by a championship team since Napoleon tried to capture Moscow neatly defined the challenge the Devils face. New Jersey must find a way to get around the Colorado defensemen, to transform Blake and Raymond Bourque and Adam Foote from pillars into pylons. There are other prisms through which this series can be refracted: the matchup between the Avalanche's Patrick Roy, the tortured soul who has won more NHL games than any other goalie and who turned in his 18th career playoff shutout in Game 1, and the eternally sunny Brodeur, a butterflyer who was a bundle of exposed nerve endings in the opener; the scoring duel between the Devils' A-line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, which produced only three shots in the first game, and Colorado center Joe Sakic, who bears a staggering offensive burden in the absence of spleen-less sidekick Peter Forsberg but seemed unfazed by it in beating Brodeur twice in the opener; and Bourque's attempt to win his first Cup after 22 NHL seasons and 1,820 regular-season and playoff games, a quest for a Holy Grail that has taken on more dramatic tones than Wagner's Siegfried if you've listened to all the violins being bowed daily by the media. However, for the clearest, and most clearheaded, look at the finals, they must be viewed through 3-D glasses.
Blake, 31, Bourque, 40, and Foote, 29, are today's version of the original Big Three who played for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s: current Devils coach Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe. The match between the OBT, all three of whose members are in the Hall of Fame, and the Big Three II isn't exact, but there are similarities. Blake, like Robinson, his teammate and later his coach with the Los Angeles Kings, is a tough, rangy hitter, though Blake's trademark is the kind of shot that he whistled past Brodeur, while Robinson's was a 90-foot tape-to-tape breakout pass up the middle. Bourque, among the best three-zone defensemen ever, is even more steadfast than Savard was, though Bourque lacks a signature move like the Savardian spin-o-rama that would free space for the lumbering Canadien. The analogy falls flat at Lapointe, a superb two-way defenseman, and Foote, an energetic thumper, but collectively the Avalanche defensemen have almost everything the OBT had—except a nickname.
For Colorado coach Bob Hartley, playing the Big Three II almost constantly—at least one of the trio was on the ice for all but six minutes of the 45 minutes and 36 seconds played before Blake's goal in Game 1—is an irresistible indulgence, but it's also a treat for the defensemen. During most of the 1990s, before he saw his Stanley Cup dreams receding with the Boston Bruins and asked for a trade, Bourque was obliged to provide on-the-job training for young defensemen. The same task in Los Angeles often fell to Blake, who as a rookie in 1990 had been schooled by Robinson. For the first time in their careers, the Big Three II are teaming with defensemen as accomplished as they are. "It challenges us every game," says Blake, who was paired with Bourque against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference finals before Hartley switched Bourque back with Foote to counter the Arnott line and give Blake more license to attack. "You see the other guys have a good shift or a good period, and it brings your level of play up. It's worked well that way."
Thanks to Roy and the most dazzling collection of forwards in the conference, the Avalanche had been getting by with mostly middling defensemen since winning its only Stanley Cup, in 1996. Colorado had some intriguing blue-liners, but never a dominating presence. Upon pondering his trading-deadline options the past two years, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix decided each time to deal for the sexy blue line name, Bourque in 2000 and Blake this season, to complement the most irascible and least known of the Big Three II.
Give Foote an inch, he takes a yard. He's remarkably nasty, even if he doesn't throw the last-rite shoulder checks that New Jersey's Scott Stevens sometimes dishes out. "Those three guys are all very good at what they do," Devils center Bobby Holik says, "but Foote is as tough to play against as anybody. He never gives up. He won't go away."
Like his father, Vern, a retired Toronto police officer, Adam was born to serve and protect. Vern ran a strict household, and if Adam sometimes chafed at the rules, he now appreciates the long-term benefits of his upbringing. "At times I couldn't do things that other guys could," he said on the morning of Game 1, "but now I know I'm doing things that other guys aren't. He definitely taught me discipline."
Foote's self-discipline hasn't always been evident. He's loud, excitable and not always a portrait of grace in defeat. When the New York Rangers upset the Quebec Nordiques, the Avalanche's forebears, in the first round in '95, a crestfallen Foote returned home to Toronto.
"Want to watch the game with me tonight?" Vern asked, referring to Hockey Night in Canada.
"When you come home," Adam replied, "do you watch Cops?"