A Couple of weeks ago New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur noticed slumping Devils right wing St�phane Richer moping around, grim as a tax audit, so brodeur made him a deal: He would pay Richer $100 for every goal he scored, if Richer would give Brodeur $100 for every game Brodeur won. After Richer's hat trick in a 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay lightning on March 26, Brodeur, the winning goalie, found himself $200 in the hole.
Richer, the sullen sniper on hockey's most buttoned-down team, agreed to settle for a dress shirt instead of cash, but Brodeur returned from prowling the stores the next afternoon empty-handed. "That was tough," Brodeur says of shopping for Richer. "It's like buying a present for your wife."
The Devils: You can't dress them up, and you might not even be able to take them out. To the big playoff dance, that is. Instead of fine-tuning for the postseason—giving the overworked Brodeur a breather, polishing their asphyxiating trap—the defending Stanley Cup champions find themselves in a frenzied game of musical chairs as one of four teams chasing the final three Eastern Conference playoff slots. The top sight teams in each conference qualify for the postseason, and through Sunday the Devils (34-29-12) were eighth, but only one point out of ninth. When the music stops at the end of the regular season on April 14, New Jersey could become the first team since the 1970 Montreal Canadiens to miss the playoffs the year after winning the Stanley Cup. "That's not the kind of thing you want to go down in history for," says Devils right wing Bill Guerin.
Their recent record suggests New Jersey will be spared that ignominy. Indeed, all the vital signs point to playoff success: As of Sunday the Devils had lost only four of their past 17 games, were an impressive 7-0-12 in overtime this season, were ranked second to the powerful Detroit Red Wings in goals-against average, had the best record in the conference (15-7-8) since the All-Star break and had the second-best road record in the NHL (9-4-6) since Jan. 1.
"You can't count them out in the playoffs," Pittsburgh Penguins center Ron Francis says. "Having won the Cup before, they know what it takes to do it. They're better prepared to handle all the mental things that crop up. They also have great goal-tending and defense. They're dangerous."
But the numbers from the Devils' 10-week surge may be illusory, masking an inconsistency that still plagues them. Last Thursday, New Jersey allowed the Blues to hold a kiddies' skating party in a 4-4 tie, permitting St. Louis 31 shots in the first two periods and 10 terrific scoring chances (resulting in one goal) in the second. The Blues' four goals all came from the slot, the sector the rugged Devils defense is supposed to sweep. New Jersey players have been uttering all the right locker room quotes about their desperation, but they played the first 40 minutes as if they were in Dockers and boat shoes. The next day in Pittsburgh, coach Jacques Lemaire only hinted at his frustration, fearful any careless public words might upset some players. You just hope his feet are more callused than his team. On the way out of the Civic Arena after practice, Lemaire expressed himself more freely, kicking a metal dolly.
After sipping champagne from hockey's chalice, any team can get a whopping Stanley Cup hangover. The complacent feeling mingles with the resolve of opponents who want to knock you down a peg, and the next thing you're doing is reaching for the excuses along with the Tylenol. The champion Canadiens had just such a hangover in 1994, losing to the Boston Bruins in the first playoff round. The New York Rangers had it in 1995 when they staggered to the last playoff spot and were whipped by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. The Devils could be where their despised New York neighbors were a year ago. If they do make the playoffs, how much will they have left? Brodeur's superb work hasn't received the attention of Blues goalie Grant Fuhr's consecutive-start record, but Brodeur has started 37 straight games and played in 70 of 75 this season. Many of them have been cliff-hangers: Thirty-seven Devils games have been decided by no more than one goal. "The way things have gone," New Jersey assistant coach Chris Nilan says, 'it's like we've been playing playoff games since the All-Star break."
The pressure has created tension is Lemaire has taken away and given ice time in bursts, a punishment-reward system that has raised hackles and some eyebrows. He benched Guerin, a first-line right wing, for the second half of the victory over the Lightning. Three weeks ago, in a 3-0 loss to the Florida Panthers that ended a 10-game unbeaten run, he sat Richer for the entire third period. Lemaire explained that he hadn't liked the way Richer had warmed up before the game. Of course Lemaire meant that Richer hadn't awakened in the two periods after a desultory warmup, but the coach ended up sounding as if someone had stolen his strawberries.
Lemaire, a Hall of Fame center who won eight Stanley Cup rings with the Montreal Canadiens, is no Queeg. But he isn't exactly running McHale's Navy, either. In a memorable locker room oration earlier this season, Lemaire told the Devils he wasn't there to be a friend or a father figure but to be a guide to a second Stanley Cup. There is no warm and fuzzy in Lemaire's cold game of ice hockey.
"If you fail to complete one pass, you can get into Jacques's bad books," defenseman Ken Daneyko says. "That's happened to a lot of guys because we've been inconsistent. You play 22 minutes one night, think you've been solid, and the next game, you play 10 minutes because you're up against a different team and Jacques sees a different situation. You can't argue with him. I've tried"—Daneyko laughs—"but he's pushed all the right buttons since he came here [before the 1993-94 season]."