- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2000

This could be the Stanley Cup finals that occasionally will be interrupted by free-flowing hockey.

The New Jersey Devils series with the Dallas Stars will feature traps, traps, traps and more traps with four lines rolling over and quality goaltending at both ends. Any team that scores as many as three goals in the same game will be chastised.

The Devils face the defending champion Stars tonight in Game 1 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup finals at Continental Airlines Arena with Game 2 Thursday night also at the Meadowlands. The scene will shift to Texas for Games 3 and 4.

If there is a favorite it is Dallas, but only because the Stars won the Cup last season on a goal the Buffalo Sabres still dispute. Being the defending champion outweighs the Devils' home ice advantage, at least for the first night. Dallas also may be favored because of its resilience. The Stars lost nearly 400 man-games to injury this season, most to front line players, but have still played well enough to get to the finals.

"Our whole season has been about surviving, about finding ways and maneuvering to wins," said Ken Hitchcock, the Dallas coach who now weighs about 260 pounds after once weighing about twice that total. "It's been the best weight-loss program I've ever been on."

Both teams have been built to utilize defensive schemes designed to limit flow, which in turn limits chances as well as goals. This is commonly known as trapping as in the neutral zone trap or the left wing lock or the third man high. It also is often called boring, to the point that it is driving fans away.

"I hope for hockey's sake it is a very exciting series," New Jersey coach Larry Robinson said yesterday. Then he got defensive.

"The bottom line is, our job is to win hockey games," he said. "In the end, I don't care, they can call us whatever they want. If you are standing there with the Stanley Cup, you don't care what kind of hockey you played, exciting or not."

The series figures to be determined in two overlapping areas goalkeeping and special teams. The edge in goaltending might go to the Stars' Ed Belfour over the Devils' Martin Brodeur, although you could flip a coin. New Jersey has the edge in special teams and there, more than any other area, is where championships are decided in hockey.

The Devils have been outstanding at killing penalties in the playoffs, allowing just three goals in 51 chances. They are a perfect 20-20 at home. Their power play is a so-so 18.5 percent but a dreadful 11 percent at home.

Dallas has killed 88 percent of it's penalties in the postseason, including the last 17 in a row, but is allowing the opposition to score 16 percent of the time in Reunion Arena. The Stars' power play is running at only a 16.9 clip, which is not going to win many bragging rights, even in Texas.

All of that could mean there is excellent goaltending preventing snipers from doing what they are paid to do. Both goalies are 12-5 with Belfour owning a .931 save percentage, slightly better than Brodeur's .923. Colorado could not get more than two goals past Belfour in any Western Conference final game while Brodeur rallied from three bad losses in a row to win three straight when it truly counted.

Dallas has the stars from last summer's finals Joe Nieuwendyk, the playoffs MVP; Mike Modano, who played with a broken left wrist; Brett Hull, who scored the game-winner in the third overtime and leads all playoff scorers now with nine goals and 20 points. New Jersey doesn't have as many recognizable names defenseman Scott Stevens, the ex-Cap who is a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy; Patrik Elias, who is suddenly turning into a playoff bloomer; Petr Sykora and Claude Lemieux.

Hull may be the best story. He was more than just a scoring hero for the Stars last season. He inspired his teammates by playing with an assortment of injuries in the finals while arguing with Hitchcock about which system was better the coach's defense or the player's offense.

It took the whole season but Hitchcock won "I am the guy that puts him on the ice so he either plays my way or he doesn't go on the ice and he knows that".

Hull, who had his best seasons while Adam Oates was his center in St. Louis, dropped to 24 goals and 59 points this season and a depressing minus 21 defensively, but he bought into the system.

In the playoffs he is not only the leading scorer left playing but is also a plus 5.

"We pretty much disagree on everything hockey-wise," Hitchcock said, "but he's like me, he wants to win."

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