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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Devils Doze Off on Ducks

May 26, 2003|Helene Elliott

WEST ORANGE, N.J. — New Jersey Devil defenseman Brian Rafalski was ready to nod off by the time the puck was dropped to start most of the Mighty Ducks' playoff games this spring.

The extent of his viewing on nights he was awake past 10 p.m.? "Usually, one period," he said.

Goaltender Martin Brodeur has watched "a little bit" of the Ducks' march to the Stanley Cup finals, blaming the three-hour time difference between New Jersey and California for his inability to more carefully monitor their progress.

"When they played Detroit and Dallas, those were a little closer," Brodeur said. "Most times guys have a hard time staying up that late. Not the first series, I didn't see too much.... We didn't look at their lineup yet, and we'll do our homework [today]."

Scott Stevens, the Devils' captain and leader on defense, acknowledged he hasn't seen much of the team that will face his for the Stanley Cup starting Tuesday at Continental Airlines Arena. Savvy veteran that he is, he neatly stickhandled around what could have been interpreted as an insult and turned it into a backhanded compliment.

"They're so consistent, it's almost like you have to watch one game and then you don't have to watch any other games," he said. "They don't vary their game plan."

Winger Jamie Langenbrunner's viewing of the Ducks has been mostly confined to their second-round series against Dallas -- and even then, he was following his former Star teammates, not sizing up the Ducks as a playoff opponent.

"That's the weird thing about the finals," he said Sunday after the Devils practiced at South Mountain Arena. "We really haven't seen them. We played them twice early in the season [Nov. 12 and Jan. 24], and they're a whole different team than they were then."

No wonder the NHL's TV ratings are down: Even the Devils haven't been watching.

Coach Pat Burns undoubtedly would be pleased to know his players weren't camped in front of their TV sets until the wee hours. But in this age of all-news, all-the-time, the Devils' apparent lack of familiarity with the Ducks was startling.

"I don't usually watch a lot of other games," center Scott Gomez said. "I don't know much about them, but we'll go over tapes [today]. What they've done is very interesting. They beat Detroit, and you say, 'Oh.' Then they beat Dallas and you say, 'Whoa.' "

Certainly, the Devils praised the Ducks for getting to the finals and lauded the exceptional play of goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

"He looks steady. He looks in control," Brodeur said. "Most of the saves he makes, the puck is hitting the duck [logo on his jersey]. That's a good sign when it's hitting the middle of your body."

Stevens praised the Ducks' team defense and rejected a suggestion the Devils, who had six victories and 13 points more than the Ducks, should be favored.

"They've knocked off some good teams," he said. "That's a team that's not intimidated or afraid. I don't know who the favorite is."

Beyond that, however, the Devils offered few specifics about their opponents, omissions that are intriguing.

Of course, the Devils scouted the Ducks and sent pro scouts Jan Ludvig and Bob Hoffmeyer to the Western Conference finals. And like any team, the Devils have access to satellite feeds of telecasts and videotapes for painstaking analysis. But can they distill all that into a crash course to be delivered today?

West Coast outposts always have faced disadvantages because of travel, and no NHL team based in the Pacific time zone has won the Cup since the 1925 Victoria Cougars. That could change. For the Ducks, having accomplished so much while the Devils were -- presumably -- asleep could provide an element of surprise, and in a series between teams so similar in style, character and defensive bent, the smallest edge could be decisive.

"It could come down to one shot, one power play, one penalty kill, one save," Burns said. "They have some experienced players too, but we probably have a little more experience. There's no big difference talent-wise, skill-wise."

Or effort-wise and wise-wise. "At this point of the year, great players don't make great teams. Good players make great teams," Burns said. "They have a lot of good players that are making them a great team."

Apparently, he's among the few people east of the Mississippi River who has seen and recognized the Ducks' capabilities.

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