- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. New Jersey defenseman Brian Rafalski isn't supposed to be playing in his second straight Stanley Cup finals. In fact, Rafalski isn't even supposed to be playing in the NHL.

Even though he led Wisconsin to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title as a senior in 1995, Rafalski wasn't taken in that year's NHL draft because the experts said there was no room in the league for a 5-foot-9, 195-pound defenseman no matter how offensively gifted. And Rafalski stubbornly refused a switch to forward.

After an unhappy summer in 1995 peddling cigarettes for Philip Morris, Rafalski made the bold decision to forgo joining an independent minor league team to prove himself in Europe even though few, if any, North Americans had taken that route to the NHL.

"If you think you can make it and you work to improve, you can make it," said Rafalski, who played a year in Sweden and three in Finland. "It won't happen overnight for everybody. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work."

When Rafalski led Finnish league defensemen with 53 points in 53 games and posted a plus-38 defensive rating in 1998-99, the Devils who had won just one playoff series the previous four years thought they might have found an offensive-minded defenseman to complement Scott Niedermayer.

"I told each of our scouts to find the best puck-handling defenseman in their area who was going to be a free agent or eligible to be drafted," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said.

On the strength of glowing recommendations from European scout Dan LaBraaten and scouting director David Conte, the Devils signed Rafalski. The no-risk gamble has paid off handsomely.

"Even when Brian was at Wisconsin, we never questioned his skills, but there were concerns about his hockey strength and common sense," Lamoriello said. "But Brian came into camp last year and did extremely well. He was even better than we had thought."

Rafalski made the All-Rookie team with 53 points and a plus-21 rating last year while paired with captain Scott Stevens as New Jersey won the Cup. Awarded a four-year, $11 million contract, Rafalski was even better this season with 52 points eighth among NHL defensemen and a plus-36 rating tied for fourth in the league.

"Brian has been a great find," Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko said. "He was such a major contributor as a rookie last year in us winning the Stanley Cup, and he picked up this year right where he left off. He's such a gifted guy. Everybody thought he was too small, but he's very solid for his size and he can play both ends of the rink."

When Niedermayer missed four games after being kayoed by Toronto's Tie Domi in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Rafalski thrived on the burden of being the only threat from the blue line. He scored a team-best eight points (three goals and five assists) in the conference finals against Pittsburgh. His 16 points in the playoffs heading into tonight's Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Colorado Avalanche are a Devils record for a defenseman, and his three game-winning goals are one off the team mark.

"Brian jumped up in the Pittsburgh series and got a lot of people's attention, but he has been doing that since I got here," said defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who joined the Devils on March 4. "The things that impress me the most are his poise and his awareness on the ice. He seems to know where all five of our guys are. He seems to make the right pass all the time, and it's quick and right on the stick."

But as his plus-minus rating indicates, there's more to the 27-year-old Rafalski than his offensive ability.

"In Game 2, Brian made a play on [Colorado center] Chris Drury, one of the shiftiest, fastest players in the league," Devils goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said. "Brian kind of bodied him and just pitched him off the boards. It was such an effective play. For an offensive-minded guy like that to be able to read plays, body guys off, take the hits he has been taking and come back shows that he's as resilient as anybody. That's a big factor when you're a small guy."

Rafalski certainly has shown he belongs.

"I proved that I could play in the league last year, and now I'm growing out there, but I've always been a good defensive player," Rafalski said. "I played against the top lines all through the playoffs last year, and we were able to shut them all down. You just get better playing against the best. I'm scoring more this year because I'm more experienced at reading plays what will work, what won't and I'm more comfortable with my teammates. The chemistry is better. They know where I'm going to be, and I know where they're going to be."

In the finals come springtime.

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