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ON THE NHL

Ducks Get Hit Hard by Reality of the Finals

May 28, 2003|Helene Elliott

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Mighty Ducks never knew what hit them Tuesday until it was too late.

They knew who hit them -- everyone in a New Jersey Devil uniform except the team mascot -- but they were powerless to do much about it on legs still heavy and minds still revving up after a 10-day layoff that followed their sweep of the Western Conference finals.

"Everybody hits on their team. That's what they do," Duck defenseman Kurt Sauer said. "Whether they're 6-3 or 5-10, they're going to hit you."

Which meant that reality hit the Ducks as hard Tuesday as Scott Stevens, Colin White and company had shouldered and shoved them in a 3-0 victory to open the Stanley Cup finals.

Welcome (boom, crash) to the finals. The Ducks will have to replenish their supply of ice packs and liniment if they intend to stick around awhile.

From the looks of things in the opener, this could be a bumpy ride for the Ducks, whose rustiness was compounded by more than a few first-time jitters -- a malady the more experienced Devils didn't endure.

The Ducks hadn't faced so physical an opponent since several sporadic efforts by the Dallas Stars in their second-round series. But when the Stars lost sight of the line between rugged and stupid, the Ducks capitalized on their lack of discipline and won the series in six games.

The Devils, by contrast, played a hard-hitting but smartly controlled game from the outset Tuesday. They never gave the Ducks a chance to build up speed through the neutral zone and bumped them off the puck often enough to make goaltender Martin Brodeur's 16-save performance perhaps his easiest shutout of the season.

The NHL no longer keeps track of hits among its game statistics, but the Devils' edge in that category must have been at least as decisive as their 30-16 advantage in shots on goal.

"We wanted to get on them quickly," said Stevens, the Devils' captain and a charismatic leader whose example usually counts for more than his words. "We did finish our checks and play physically and I thought we did a good job in that area.

"We wanted to play physically. We're a physical team. We just played a smart game and we're happy with the effort."

As well they should be.

"We'll look to be physical when we can, but we want to stay within our game plan," New Jersey defenseman Scott Niedermayer said. "If the hits are there, we don't turn away."

The Devils' brawn is complemented by their speed, and they used it well all over the ice. They neutralized the Ducks' speed and limited them to mainly perimeter shots; they also blocked shots and never allowed the Ducks to muster any offensive flurries or put any sustained pressure on Brodeur. Offensively, the Devils used their smarts and quick bursts of speed to produce several outnumbered rushes.

"I thought we played the way we wanted to play in all three zones," Brodeur said after recording his 18th career shutout and first in 18 appearances in the finals.

The Devils never stopped moving, whether on the forecheck or in the neutral zone, creating a whirl of motion and force that led to countless turnovers by the Ducks. And New Jersey's hits never stopped coming, whether from defensemen or the selfless corps of forwards.

"They've got a lot of speed and guys who do things with the puck, so you've got to take the body," New Jersey center Scott Gomez said. "This was really a team effort. Guys did a great job. Everyone was taking the body."

Taking the body meant taking control of the game.

"They played extremely well. They're a physical team," Duck forward Dan Bylsma said. "They were meeting our defensemen at the puck and getting their bodies on them. Our defensemen were facing the glass a lot.

"What it comes down to is we didn't match what they brought. We didn't play as well as we're capable of playing."

Thunderous hits and booming hip checks aren't the Ducks' style. They probably won't match the Devils hit for hit; they play well positionally, keep their poise, hold their ground and try to be rugged but not confrontational. They can't change now, and they probably shouldn't.

But they'll have to find ways to move the puck more quickly but not so hastily that they make poor decisions. If the Devils continue to try to push them toward the boards, they have to use the middle of the ice more often.

The Ducks didn't take refuge in excuses. They acknowledged the Devils had outplayed them most of the game but insisted they hadn't played their best. They have to hope the Devils played their best, because should New Jersey become more physical and improve in the areas in which it already showed formidable strength, the Ducks could be bumped right out of this series.

"We don't know if we can improve because we didn't do it. You don't know until you actually do it," Bylsma said. "We need to work on our battle level but we've got to be sure we're sticking with our game plan. Then we'll know if we can play with them."

The sooner it hits them, the better.

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