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KELLEY: Breaking down the finals

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
It's been dubbed the suburban series, the no-name series and even the series that no one cares about. It's a Stanley Cup finals matchup that pits the "who-dat" of Anaheim vs. the New Jersey — perhaps the ultimate in-the-shadow-of-New-York-team of all time. Who could blame the critics? A TV ratings grabber it is not. A showcase of big-name players it is not. A grudge match between two of the National Hockey League's most glamorous teams; it is anything but. Still, for hockey purists and even for all those kids who grew up watching movies of teams that overcame impossible odds to succeed when no one gave them a chance, this series has a certain amount of intrigue and even a little panache. To be sure, goal scoring will be at a premium what with Anaheim's and New Jersey's manning the nets. Defense will be at the forefront of the way both teams play and coaching tactics, especially defensively, will take center ice on most nights. Still, there are compelling aspects to this series that make it worth your time. For one, the goaltending battle should be extraordinary. This is a showdown between two of the game's greats, Brodeur, long in the shadow of , but every bit as good and, right now, maybe better vs. Giguere, the new kid on the block but a giant killer in regards a sweep of the defending Cup champion Detroit and his ousting of the West's No. 1 team in the regular season, Dallas. Giguere topped those two tricks by limiting the Minnesota to only one goal in a four-game sweep, a nearly unprecedented achievement. Brodeur had a relatively easy time of it getting past Boston in four and Tampa in six, but he was the difference in beating the Ottawa in seven. Of course there's the family line, New Jersey's going against his brother, Anaheim's Rob. Rob being a forward, he'll probably be seeing a lot of his brother, a defenseman. The NHL hasn't had a brother matchup in the finals since before a good many of us were alive (1946). Then there's a pretty good contrast in coaching as well. Mike Babcock of the Ducks is this season's boy-wonder, with seemingly every button he pushes producing the desired results. He goes against Pat Burns, a long-time veteran who's had success in countless ways (three-time coach of the year), but has never won the ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. There's the age story line as well. , the Ducks No. 1 center is 40 and the oldest active player never to have won a Cup. His teammate, , is close in age and he, too, has never won the ultimate prize. Contrast that to the , where Cup rings clink together like beer glasses in a legion hall. There are 15 of these with their name on the Cup, including half a dozen from New Jersey's first Cup win, the 1995 team. Several of them, including defenseman and perhaps , have to be looking at this series as their last hurrah. Then there's the "trade" factor. The Ducks traded forward and defenseman to the largely because they had given up on both of them. Friesen always had speed and talent, but never was able to quite put it altogether to create a big finish. However he had three game-winning goals against Ottawa, including the series-winner Friday evening. Tverdovsky also has remarkable skating skills and is a brilliant playmaker with a scorer's touch, but he has a tendency to make the big mistake at the worst possible time. Burns knows that and Tverdovsky hasn't been dressing for all of the playoff games. They will be trying to show something to Ducks general manager Bryan Murray, who sent them away for . Sykora was the Ducks leading goal-scorer in the regular season (29), but he has much to prove in this round. He was on New Jersey's last Cup-winning team, but he's been largely ineffective as a goal scorer in the playoffs (two goals). He does have six assists, but many were expecting more. All and all, it's a series between two teams of relatively equal ability starting from the goal out. It should make for a series of very close games, they will likely be low scoring which is sure to be a turn-off for the causal fan. But they should also be intense which will certainly appeal to hockey die-hards. That closeness makes it a series that's very difficult to call. The teams are pretty much the same in goal, New Jersey has an edge on defense, but the Ducks are a tad better on offense and special teams are likely to cancel each other out. The Ducks will have had a record 10 days off between games which can lead to rust, but the will have to deal with the exhaustion that comes from going seven in the conference championship so those two factors should also cancel each other out. If we can find an edge here it has to be in the area of experience. The have much more of it on the ice and behind the bench. The essential players on this team have been to the Cup finals three times in the last four years. That counts for something and we'll go with them in a series of very close games. Prediction: New Jersey in six.
STANLEY CUP MATCHUPS
Forwards
Better than the credit they are given. has dedicated himself to two-way play, but he has explosive scoring ability. came over from the and ended up leading the team in goals in the regular season. is a playmaker extraordinaire, , picked up at the trade deadline adds experience, tenacity and grit. , healthy at last, is a solid two-way with strong defensive skills and a knack for timely goals. scores on a consistent basis and Rob Nedermayer, picked up from Calgary at the trade deadline, has size, is good on faceoffs and is a defensive force. Sprinkle in the young kids, especially Sami Pahlsson and rookie standout and this group is not just good, but it is remarkably balanced and doesn't rely on just one or two players going well (or bad).
Advantage: Ducks.
If recovers from whatever knee, hip, leg, ankle, foot injury that ailed him in Games 6 and 7 of the Ottawa series, this is a formidable group. Nieuwendyk centers for and and both wingers can score. A second line of centering for and small, but effective also goes two ways. anchors a checking line with Jay Pandalfo and or a combination of several right wingers including Sergei Brylin and is very effective both ways. But Madden also moves up into a scorers role when necessary and can go all the way to the No.1 unit if Nieuwendyk can't go. The rest of the squad is made up of dedicated trappers and checkers and coach Pat Burns has no qualms about rotating players through situational matchups.
Defensemen
paired with . Offense often comes from the pairing of and with Ozo the key attack man. Third pairing rotates and doesn't get near the ice time of top two units. Overall, unit is short on depth. When the Ducks do get into trouble in their own end it¿s usually when they are caught in a line mismatch having the defensive pairing of Ruslan Salei and Vitaly Vishnevsky out against the other team¿s top line. Vishnevsky is young and sometimes is lured out of position, especially if he goes looking to make a big physical play. Salei can be an intimidating force, but he can also be slow afoot and occasionally takes retaliatory penalties at very poor times.
Perhaps the best unit in the playoffs this spring. The unit is three pairings deep and has a combination of size and speed in each group. No.1 still is , a ferocious hitter, tenacious competitor and ultimate team leader. He'll often pair with the speedy . A second solid unit of and Scott Niedermayer plays the same way with Niedermayer an effective skater and puckhandler who can jump into the offensive play. The third unit of and either or has been lagging of late due to lack of speed or a tendency for turnovers. But Burns has covered these problems rotating in with the others on a per-game basis, keeping everyone fresh and taking some of the load off the top four.
Advantage: Devils
Goalies
. The numbers back that up as the first-time playoff performer is on track for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the playoffs. There are no discernable weaknesses here though most shooters have been trying to go high on the stick side. Lack of experience hasn't been a problem to date, but these are the Stanley Cup finals and Giguere will have to prove himself equal to the task again.
Advantage: Even
For all the talk of Giguere it is who has two Stanley Cup rings, an Olympic gold medal and is a candidate for both the Vezina Trophy (best goalie) and the Hart Trophy (league MVP). Brodeur is the reason the are in the finals again and though he has had some breakdowns in these playoffs (perhaps because of off-ice problems with an impending divorce), he is a winner, a superb puck-stopper and a better puck-handler than Giguere. He's also been here before (a winner twice and a loser) and is as good under pressure as any goalie ever.
Advantage: Even
Special Teams
Almost a mirror of the Ducks with experienced individuals who seem to be having problems coming together on the power play (though more effective than the Ducks) but who are virtually unbeatable in the penalty killing department.
Advantage: Even
Coaching
Burns is a three-time coach of the year. He had the Montreal in the finals in his rookie year (losing to the Calgary in 1989) and yet he is still vastly underrated. Burns is a defensive-minded coach, but he knows offense and knows who and when to send in to create it. He's a master at getting line matchups that he wants and he substitutes brilliantly (changing up his cast of characters for an opponent's specific strengths or weaknesses). His tactics are good-to-great both on and off the ice (he can create a diversion with a rant or a subtle move as well as anyone — including Scott Bowman) and he has great motivational skills.
Advantage:

Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Flames, Canadiens, Devils, Senators, Avalanche, Ducks, Wild, Sandis Ozolinsh, Grant Marshall, Jamie Langenbrunner, Joe Nieuwendyk, Martin Brodeur, Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, John Madden, Brian Rafalski, Niclas Havelid, Paul Kariya, Jeff Friesen, Keith Carney, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Kurt Sauer, Colin White

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