"We don't have a team designed to grind it out on the boards, so we try to make the best of the skills we do have," coach Pat Quinn says. "In the playoffs we're going to force [Eastern Conference] teams to play our way. They're going to have to defend us, and we're better offensively than we were. We're also better at their game than we were early in the season."
Will New Jersey finally fill up the net?
The Devils finished second to Toronto in regular-season goals but still must kick their habit of making every opposing playoff goalie look like Jacques Plante. Getting four goals in five games against the Rangers' Mike Richter in a 1997 second-round loss was understandable; putting only 11 past Ottawa's Damian Rhodes in six games of a first-round defeat last spring was ridiculous. "Last year was just a disaster," says New Jersey center Bobby Holik. But an emerging scoring line of Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias, the increasing willingness of defensemen other than Scott Niedermayer to join the rush, and coach Robbie Ftorek's tolerance for the occasional defensive lapse give the Devils more confidence in the attacking zone.
What lower-seeded clubs could be a favorite's worst nightmare?
The San Jose Sharks might not beat Colorado in the first round, but they could pound on the Avalanche like a mallet on flank steak for six or seven games. The Sharks are skilled in hockey's black arts, drawing penalties by relentlessly driving to the net and punishing opposing forwards with a style that varies between merely nasty and unabashedly dirty. The most dangerous Shark is defenseman Bryan Marchment, who in Game 1 of the 1998 playoffs blew out Joe Nieuwendyk's knee by running him into the boards, effectively crippling Dallas's Cup hopes less than a period into the postseason. San Jose also has a playoff-hardened goalie in two-time Cup winner Mike Vernon and an offense bolstered by trading-deadline acquisition Vincent Damphousse, a forward who had been suffocating with the Montreal Canadiens but who flourished with the Sharks (13 points in 12 games).
The Boston Bruins are another potential land mine for higher-seeded opponents. Boston employed a playoff style all season, making simple passes, dumping the puck, playing with a mix of irritability and discipline that works well in the spring. The Bruins rarely beat themselves, allowing an NHL-low 3.7 power plays per game and killing them at an 89.2% rate. Goalie Byron Dafoe had the league's second-best save percentage (.926), and center Joe Thornton emerged in his second season to give Boston two scoring lines. Says coach Pat Burns proudly, "We're a pain in the ass."
So who will win the Stanley Cup?
Last October, SI picked Dallas, and we're sticking with the team even though Detroit is fabulous and Colorado is dangerous. Whichever team survives the anticipated second-round Armageddon between the Red Wings and the Avalanche could be in tatters by the time it plays Dallas in the conference finals. In the NHL's endless season the Stars, who will bounce the Devils for the Cup, might even be hailed as the Boys of Summer.
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