Devils Bring Momentum Into the Eye of a Hurricane
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The New Jersey Devils will be facing a familiar foe when their second-round playoff series begins this weekend, as they head to Raleigh, N.C., to take on the Hurricanes. The teams previously met in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs, with each series lasting six games and the winner ultimately losing in the Stanley Cup Finals. In 2001, the Devils prevailed in a series characterized by a few crushing hits delivered by former captain Scott Stevens. The following year, the Hurricanes emerged victorious behind the stellar goaltending of backup Kevin Weekes, who’s now with the Rangers.
This has been a tale of two seasons for the Devils, who, in the past month, have emerged as the NHL’s hottest team, winning 15 consecutive games, including a first-round sweep of the Rangers. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes – at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for most of the season’s second half – had to scratch and claw their way past the Montreal Canadiens in a six-game series they barely survived.
Here’s a look at how the two teams match up, position by position…
DEVILS: New Jersey’s offense revolves around left wing Patrik Elias. He was absolutely devastating in the sweep of the Rangers, tallying 11 points in four games, and is showing no ill effects from the battle with Hepatitis A that forced him to miss the first three months of the season. Also providing tremendous production for the Devils are center Scott Gomez and right wing Brian Gionta, both of whom have enjoyed career seasons.
The key for the Devils, however, will be the supporting cast. If John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner continue to step up and produce as they did against the Rangers, New Jersey will have enough scoring depth to match the highpowered Hurricanes. But if they don’t, the Devils will struggle to keep up.
HURRICANES: In his second full NHL season, Eric Staal made an enormous leap from highly touted prospect to bona fide All-Star. He finished the regular season with 100 points (45 goals, 55 assists),and tallied eight points in the series victory over the Canadiens.
Meanwhile, captain Rod Brind’Amour is the league’s finest faceoff man, which might prove crucial in this series. He won 1,268 draws during the regular season (30% more than the nearest competitor), and his 59.1% success rate was third-best among all starting centers.
The wild card for Carolina in this series is Doug Weight. A dazzling playmaker, Weight has struggled mightily since arriving in Carolina just before the Olympic break, and the ‘Canes will need him to get back on track if they’re to out-do the Devils.
DEVILS: The Devils’ defense struggled through the season’s first half, but improved dramatically following Elias’s return. Perhaps it was because his offensive prowess put opponents on their heels a bit more, and perhaps it was because GM/coach Lou Lamoriello’s teachings began to sink in. Either way, the Devils’ defense is once again one of the league’s stingiest, and a huge surprise has been the stellar positional play of Brian Rafalski. Not typically known for his play in the defensive zone, Rafalski is playing the best hockey of his career, distinguishing himself with solid positional play while quarterbacking the power play with tremendous confidence.
HURRICANES: What the unheralded Hurricanes defense lacks in star power, it makes up for with workmanlike effort. Leading the way is big Mike Commodore, whose red afro leant him cult hero status during Calgary’s run to the Cup Finals in 2004. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Commodore is the Hurricanes’ biggest blueliner, and he was a force in the first round against Montreal.
Elswhere, Bret Hedican is one of the NHL’s fastest skaters and will most certainly be counted on to help contain Elias and Gionta.
DEVILS: Martin Brodeur is the only goaltender among the four remaining Eastern Conference teams who had any playoff experience prior to this year. For the Devils, this represents a huge advantage. During his 13-year career, Brodeur has proven himself as one of the greatest playoff goalies in NHL history, winning three Stanley Cups with a miserly 1.87 goals-against average and a stellar .921 save percentage. If these playoffs come down to goaltending, the Devils must be considered the favorites to win it all.
HURRICANES: Carolina began the playoffs with Martin Gerber between the pipes, but when he struggled, the ‘Canes switched to rookie Cam Ward. For head coach Peter Laviolette, the move was a stroke of genius; Ward started the final four games of the series against Montreal, winning all four while allowing only five goals. But the 2003 first-round pick will need to remain razor-sharp if he’s to match Brodeur save-for-save.
The Hurricanes and Devils are as even as two teams can be, at least on paper. Their power play and penalty killing success rates are nearly identical, as are most other key statistical measures. But the Devils have two things on their side in this series that will ultimately enable them to prevail.
The first is their momentum. The Devils are on a roll, and it will be very difficult for Carolina to stem that tide. The second is Brodeur, who should be expected to outplay Ward and lead New Jersey to victory in six games.
Mr. Greenstein is the Editor in Chief of InsideHockey.com.