DUCKS VS. DEVILS
The Stanley Cup finals were set to begin on Tuesday at a generic arena in the marshland off Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike, the ideal setting for a series in which the goal judges figured to be as lifeless as Jimmy Hoffa. There is ample parking outside Continental Airlines Arena, but inside the Devils' home rink there promised to be little room to maneuver in the neutral zone. The traffic patterns probably won't change when the series shifts to the snazzy digs of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for Game 3 on Saturday.
This bicoastal matchup is built around last speed, counterattacks and two superb goalies: Jean-S�bastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks, whose swift ascent to stardom landed him on The Tonight Show last Friday, and Martin Brodeur of the Devils, whose bitter public split from wife Melaine seems destined to get them on Judge Judy. The series may well be the apogee—or if you prefer, nadir—of the defensive trend that began in the mid-1990s and has led to the Dead Puck era.
Entering the Cup finals, an average of 4.73 goals had been scored in the 82 playoff matches this spring. That paltry total is two goals fewer than the postseason average 10 years ago and almost three below the 1988 figure. The puck-possession teams have given way to Anaheim and New Jersey, two paradigms of modern hockey, a game dominated by armored goalies and defense and contested in the neutral zone when not mired behind the net. The Ducks and the Devils have perfected the art of biding their time. They are like two boxers, neither of whom is naturally inclined to lead, hunkering down to a best-of-seven rope-a-dope.
They are almost mirror images of each other, doppelg�ngers who prey on turnovers. The similarities go far beyond the fact that Disney owns the Mighty Ducks and Wayne Gretzky once called the Devils "a Mickey Mouse operation." Consider:
New Jersey and Anaheim have skilled, aggressive penalty killers who combined to defuse 88.6% of extra-man situations and score four shorthanded goals over the first three rounds. More often than not, however, the power plays of the Devils and the Ducks look as chaotic as third-grade recess.
Anaheim is the NHL's best face-off team, and New Jersey, especially when center Joe Nieuwendyk is healthy (he suffered an undisclosed left leg injury in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals), is formidable on draws. But even after winning offensive-zone face-offs, neither team creates much in five-on-five play. The Devils averaged two even-strength goals in their first 17 playoff games.
THE NIEDERMAYER BROTHERS
Silky 29-year-old New Jersey defenseman Scott is facing resurgent 28-year-old Mighty Ducks center Rob, the first time brothers have met in a finals since the Montreal Canadiens' Ken Reardon and the Boston Bruins' Terry Reardon faced each other in 1946. Before this season, Scott had won two Stanley Cups and been in one other finals series with the Devils; Rob had lost in the 1996 finals with the Florida Panthers.
Anaheim rookie coach Mike Babcock, 40, reached the finals in his first NHL season, matching the feat of New Jersey coach Pat Burns, who did it with Montreal in 1989. Babcock's veneer of cockiness often camouflages his greatest asset: He is confident enough to admit he doesn't have it all figured out. "It's been said that nobody asks more questions than I do," says Babcock, who was a defenseman for McGill University in the mid-1980s. He has learned to coach by osmosis and now strews credit like rose petals for every set play or practice drill he has appropriated; he dutifully labels them in homage. In the lexicon of Babcock's Ducks, there is the Detroit chip, the Dallas tap back, the Minnesota push-the-pace, the (Todd) Bertuzzi power-play play, the Columbus breakout and the Jacques Lemaire forecheck drill.