The 2000 Stanley Cup finals can be summed up in two ways: 1) You play the New Jersey Devils, you take a number, and then you wait patiently until your name is called to get your butt kicked by defenseman Scott Stevens. Among the Devils, Stevens is the Great Satan, the authority figure responsible for meting out punishment. Whenever some high-flying Einstein on the opposition makes the mistake of keeping his head down as he carries the puck into the New Jersey zone, Stevens will starch him. His hits are hard, scary and legal. 2) Dallas Stars right wing Brett Hull has always had a firmer grasp of the time-space continuum than any sniper of the past decade. He possesses a unique ability to probe and find the mushy spots in any defensive zone coverage, then unleashes a shot so menacing mat goalies deserve more than a mask and pads—they ought to have a blindfold and a cigarette. "Hull's still the best pure shooter in the league," says Devils coach Larry Robinson. "Bar none."
To praise Hull or any player as a pure anything is also to faintly damn him, the designation being a well-intentioned but backhanded compliment that calls attention to the impure parts of a player's game. To categorize Hull as a pure scorer or Stevens as a pure thumper is to misread how each has transformed himself into a player of far greater depth than video highlights reveal.
Robinson does not mean to slight either player. He marvels at the nuances that have crept into Hull's play the past two seasons, such as a previously untapped willingness to backcheck and an enthusiasm for doing things other than whistling a puck past a goalie. (He did that 494 times in the 1990s, more than anyone else.) Robinson also lauds the meticulous play and forceful leadership of the 36-year-old Stevens, an 18-year veteran who used to react to everything on the ice as if he were an exposed nerve.
The finals should meander deep into next week, a long and sweaty series between two teams that seem to revel in making life as difficult for themselves as possible. The series will turn on goaltending—Ed Belfour's confident run for Dallas against the play of Martin Brodeur, whose brilliance seems to fade in and out like a cell phone that keeps losing its signal—special teams, face-offs, Dallas's creaky legs and one compelling matchup.
Stevens is a left defenseman, Hull a right wing. At every opportunity Robinson will have Stevens on the ice against Hull and his partner, game-breaking center Mike Modano. Through three rounds Hull was the leading postseason scorer, with nine goals and 11 assists, passing the late Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Mike Bossy for fifth place in career playoff goals (86). Through three rounds Stevens simply was the NHL's leading player, dominating not with flair but with forcefulness. Stevens had taken only two minor penalties despite being matched against the Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure in the first round, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Mats Sundin in the second and the Philadelphia Flyers' top line in the third.
Hull is the forward who finds the creases, Stevens the defenseman who creases the forwards.
This wasn't the first time Stevens had thrown a check like The Hit, the shuddering shoulder-to-jaw jolt that felled an inattentive Eric Lindros in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals; in Game 2 of the 1995 Cup finals he clobbered Slava Kozlov of the Detroit Red Wings with an equally fearsome check. The hits came from the same place, from the heart and from the shoulder, but there was a difference in Stevens's reaction to them.
After crushing Kozlov, Stevens spotted Detroit's burr-under-the-saddle winger, Dino Ciccarelli, and mouthed the words, "You're next." Last Friday, three hours after what Devils center Bobby Holik called "a play that legends are made of, a play that will never be forgotten," Stevens was doing his utmost to forget it. He was near tears, crestfallen over the possible career-ending concussion Lindros had suffered (INSIDE THE NHL, page 75). Where once there had been bravado, now there was sadness. Robinson had to pull Stevens aside after the first period of the 2-1 victory to remind him he had done nothing other than his job.
Stevens is the most effective hitter in the NHL because of his balance, his timing and his ability to read the play—"Scott's just like one of those fighter pilots who gets someone in his sights, locks in and boom" says Devils defenseman Ken Daneyko—and Lindros had his head down while stickhandling through traffic at the blue line, an embossed invitation for disaster. An older and smarter Stevens had simply stepped in to deliver the blow. Now he was looking for neither praise nor thanks, but an exit.
The Hit had obliterated Lindros, but it also overshadowed everything else about Stevens's dominating Game 7 performance. In the first period Stevens hip-checked hulking center Keith Primeau behind the Devils net, blocked four shots and actually caught a fifth, fielding an Adam Burt drive from the point as if it had been some broken-bat flare to shortstop. Brodeur, in the New Jersey net, said, "Wow, what a save." Stevens was putting on the greatest one-game display by a defenseman that Devils assistant coach Jacques Caron had ever seen. "Given the circumstances, absolutely," Caron says. "Remember, I go back to the days of Bobby Orr." Smoking one of the biggest, most powerful forwards in the NHL was only part of it.