EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New Jersey coach Pat Burns said he has been worried about faceoffs all season, not just now that the Devils are in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Devils ranked near the bottom of the league in that department during the regular season, possibly one of the reasons the team also finished last in power play scoring.
What faceoffs do is give the winner control of the puck. The situations are very similar in hockey and basketball — only the terminology changes. The team that comes up with the most rebounds gives itself more chances to score and reduces the number of opportunities the opposition has by preventing it from having possession. It is the same principle in hockey.
That is precisely why the Devils were hoping vainly that Joe Nieuwendyk’s hip injury suddenly would heal itself and allow him to play in last night’s Game5. Nieuwendyk is the only New Jersey player who can win more faceoffs than he loses on a regular basis, and Anaheim has taken advantage since he has been out to dominate that category.
Nieuwendyk was injured when he went into a corner May21 late in Game6 against Ottawa, just before the Senators won to send the series to a seventh game. He barely made it to the bench and, except for a brief time Wednesday, has not returned to the ice.
The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner (with Dallas) tried to skate Wednesday, but his discomfort was so obvious he was pulled off the ice by the Devils’ trainer. It is not known if he will make it back before the series ends.
“I just don’t think I’m where I need to be right now,” said Nieuwendyk. “They indicated to me at the beginning of this it would be a week-to-week thing. I think we’re kind of treating it as an hour-to-hour thing.”
Burns said he did not give the center permission to go out and test his injury (the team refuses to admit Nieuwendyk is even hurt; the press assumes he is because he isn’t playing), but the coach didn’t throw him off the ice either.
“I think we wanted to get a barometer of where I was,” Nieuwendyk said. “It’s been some time since I’ve been skating. It’s just frustrating, but it’s something I have to deal with. Maybe in the next couple days I’ll get even better. I’ll just try to take it one day at a time for myself and try to be there for my teammates.”
Anaheim is winning more than 60 percent of the faceoffs in the finals, a lopsided margin. Adam Oates of the Ducks is winning 65 percent of the draws he takes, and the two other key Anaheim faceoff men are well above 50 percent. Obviously, New Jersey has nobody close to breaking even; Nieuwendyk was winning 57 percent of his draws before he was injured.
Dominating faceoffs has had one very obvious advantage for the Ducks. In overtime of Game3, Oates cleanly beat New Jersey’s Pascal Rheaume and pulled the puck back to defenseman Ruslan Salei. He one-timed it, the puck nicked the inside edge of the right post and the Ducks had the win in overtime.
There had been only 12 goals scored in the finals before last night, eight for the Devils, and Burns was asked if he was satisfied with the way his team had been playing.
“Defensively, I don’t have a problem,” the coach said, “but offensively it’s almost like a baseball game — we’ve got good pitching but we need good hitting. They’ve done a great job defensively of boxing us. When we did get an opportunity, [Jean-Sebastien] Giguere has made … I don’t think we’ve had to make him make big saves. That’s what we have to do. We’ve got to make this guy work a little bit more.”
New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur has possibly provided the best quote of the series so far. Asked if he was 100 percent healthy, he said, “Yeah, I’m a little pale, but everywhere we go it’s been raining.”s