Slava Fetisov passed the puck to Detroit Red Wing teammate Ray Sheppard, who flipped it right back to Fetisov, as Sergei Brylin of the New Jersey Devils kept a wary eye on this private game of yoyo deep in the Detroit zone. New Jersey had a one-goal lead with about 6� minutes to go in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals last Saturday, and it was time for the Red Wings to make their move, to protect their unbeaten home record in the playoffs, to touch off an octopus cloudburst, to take another step toward the prize that has eluded Detroit for 40 years. But the Red Wings, like the puck, were going nowhere. They couldn't get out of their zone. They couldn't even get out of their own way. In the last nine minutes Detroit had just one shot on goal. One. When the Wings skated out on a two-on-two with 2:50 remaining, the Joe Louis Arena crowd erupted as if Detroit had a breakaway. Against the team that takes a 200-by-85-foot rink and turns it into a postage stamp, a two-on-two is a breakaway. "There wasn't much room to roam around," said Detroit coach Scott Bowman after the Red Wings lost 2-1.
"Their defense is good, their system is good. You saw the problems we had," Detroit's Steve Yzerman said of the Devils. "They controlled the neutral zone, and we were getting foiled in our own end."
The moral of the story is, do not get into a breath-holding contest with the Devils. You will turn blue before they do.
New Jersey won Game 1 on Claude Lemieux's goal at 3:17 of the third period, the startling 14th playoff game-winner of his career, but this series is more than a tussle for the right to skate a lap with the world's largest champagne glass. This series is about the very soul of the game. In a sporting adaptation of the Faust legend, the Devil is trying to sap the vitality from the NHL with a forechecking system that is called the neutral-zone trap. This series, which was to continue on Tuesday night in Detroit, isn't circle-the-wagons hockey versus fire-wagon hockey, because the Red Wings have blended plenty of defense into their game this year, but the demarcation between styles is still clear enough. In a league eager to traffic in excitement, to market itself as North America's happening sport, the juxtaposition of the often dynamic Detroit attack with New Jersey's center-ice ambush amounts to a best-of-seven series between good and evil.
"Good versus evil?" New Jersey right wing Tom Chorske mused. "And we're the Devils. Ironic."
Actually the Devils are not such bad guys for—as Roseanne Roseannadana used to say on Saturday Night Live—people from New Jersey. The lack of attention the Devils receive as the "third" team in the New York metropolitan area has given coach Jacques Lemaire a controlled environment in which to install his system. If it were up to Lemaire, a sly man who thinks the alphabet starts with X and O, he would work in a laboratory smock and lock the doors to the arena so his players wouldn't be disturbed by inconsequential matters, such as attention from fans or media.
The neutral-zone trap, of course, is all about control. "The way we're playing is control," Lemaire says. "When we know what the opponent will do, we're O.K."
For nonpuckheads, here is a primer on the Devil version of the trap, hockey's newest four-letter word: The New Jersey forechecker, usually the center, forces the puck carrier toward the boards, where he is intercepted by a Devil winger. The weak-side winger then clogs the middle along with the two defensemen, who cut off the passing lanes. Suddenly the neutral ice looks like a New Jersey mall the Saturday before Christmas. The puck carrier, now snared in the trap, can knock the puck ahead along the boards and risk turning it over or icing it, or he can return the puck to the other defenseman, or he can try to hit a forward breaking through the middle. New Jersey preys on those passes, counterattacking off interceptions of them. Or it forces opponents back into their zone for the privilege of having another chance to bang their heads against a wall.
Lemaire, a Hall of Famer who won eight Stanley Cups as a two-way center with the Montreal Canadiens from 1967 to '79, hardly grew the trap in a petri dish. The forechecking scheme, which can be used whenever an opponent has to clear from deep within its own zone, has been around for decades. The difference in the Devils' scheme, other than the New Age name, is that New Jersey's forechecker often doesn't go in as deep or as aggressively. " Montreal's been trapping for 40 years," says Pierre Pag�, the former Quebec Nordique coach and general manager who now scouts for the Toronto Maple Leafs. " Montreal always forced you to the boards and locked the middle. But people forgave them because they had great offensive players and they won 24 Stanley Cups."
These Devils are no fluke. They are a trend. They lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in double overtime to the eventual champion New York Rangers last year and were the only 1994 final four team to make it that far again this spring. Their trap works as both defense and offense. Last season the dogged Devils converted so many turnovers into goals that they were the second-highest scoring team in the league. "We've heard the cries of alarm about the trap, but I don't think any style is bad for hockey—especially given how New Jersey executes," says NHL senior vice president Brian Burke. "The Devils are big, they hit, they go to the net. They're one of the most belligerent teams, and belligerence is what makes for entertaining hockey."