- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2001


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. The New Jersey Devils were a tiny step out of sync last night, just a notch below the level of near perfection they had reached during most of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It didn't make much of a difference.

The Devils, led by Jason Arnott's two goals, polished off the seemingly demoralized and disorganized Penguins 4-2 to win the Eastern Conference finals in five games. New Jersey advances to meet the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup finals, which begin Saturday in Denver.

It was not the end that had been envisioned for the Penguins, who were jolted out of a deep winter's sleep when their owner, Mario Lemieux, came out of retirement in late December and led the club into the playoffs. The league and networks hoped Pittsburgh would make the finals to improve sagging TV ratings, but some apparent infighting and just plain uninspired play doomed the team.

"It's been a great run after three and a half years [of retirement], but we got beat by a great team," Lemieux said. "We just couldn't create any offense in the series, and that's a tribute to [Devils coach] Larry Robinson and his team. They're going to be tough to beat."

It appears Pittsburgh faces a large rebuilding task, possibly starting with its first-year coach, Ivan Hlinka, who is rumored to be on the way out. At times in the playoffs, it appeared nobody was sure who if anybody was running the Penguins bench.

Also uncertain is the future of right wing Jaromir Jagr, the NHL scoring champion who was injured and also openly fighting with Lemieux and Hlinka. He is scheduled to make in excess of $10 million next season, but the club needs that to pay others whose contracts are expiring.

When asked about the status of Jagr, Lemieux said the club would try to retain all of its players but if it can't, "life goes on."

The loss also ends the brilliant postseason run of Penguins rookie goalie Johan Hedberg. He had played just nine NHL games before the playoffs started but was without question the Pittsburgh MVP in the postseason.

The teams were tied 1-1 after the first. Arnott slammed a shot from the top of the left circle through Hedberg's legs just 57 seconds into the game for New Jersey. Alexei Morozov tied it at 16:38 when he got behind the defense on a rare Devils breakdown and flicked the puck into the net behind Martin Brodeur on Pittsburgh's third shot of the game.

Morozov's goal was the first Brodeur allowed in 151 minutes, 19 seconds or since 5:19 of the third period of Game 2. He had a shutout streak of 130:33 against Carolina earlier in the playoff season. Brodeur is tied for the single playoff season record with four shutouts along with Washington's Olie Kolzig, among others.

"I thought we started really strong, then we got a little too careful," Robinson said. "[After Pittsburgh scored] I wouldn't say we panicked, but we changed our style a little bit we stopped being aggressive, stopped getting the puck in deep. But for some reason Pittsburgh just sat back and didn't even send the first forechecker into the top of the circle. They just kind of waited for us in the neutral zone."

Pittsburgh's best period of the series was the second, even though the Penguins gave up two goals and a third that was nullified by an early whistle. That came at 5:54 when Bobby Holik put a shot under Hedberg, but a whistle sounded as the puck rolled across the goal line. Apparently, one of the officials lost sight of the puck and whistled the play dead.

New Jersey boosted itself into a 3-1 lead when Arnott ripped a screened shot into the short side at 7:41 on a power play and Holik scored one that counted, this time a 40-footer that just got past a diving Penguins defenseman at 12:23.

Martin Straka narrowed the gap to one when he finally scored a power-play goal for Pittsburgh, the first Penguins goal with the man advantage since Game 2. Straka grabbed his own rebound and shot behind Brodeur, who was diving to get back into position.

Pittsburgh had to open up in the second after falling behind by a pair, and that allowed the Penguins to play better, especially the Lemieux-Jagr-Kovalev line, which was reunited for the period after being split to start the game. But opening up was also costly the Devils scored those two goals, and Hedberg had to stop breakaways by John Madden and Scott Gomez to keep his team in the game.

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