The Team to Beat
After a 13-victory streak, the Devils again look Stanley Cup-tough
Last Friday afternoon, one year after Larry Robinson took over as coach of the Devils and just hours before New Jersey ran its winning streak to 13 games with a 4-0 home victory over the Canucks, Robinson was hanging around the dressing room talking about his job. "I feel like a father of 20 kids who have all turned out great," he said about the defending Stanley Cup champions. Then he sighed. "It's too bad that when you've got to be hard on them, you've got to be hard."
Robinson, 50, is known as Big Bird, and the nickname suits him not only because he's big and birdlike (6'4", with a long wingspan) but also because he has a kindly manner worthy of Sesame Street and because he likes to take players under his wing. He particularly enjoys these Devils, a dedicated and deeply talented bunch that at week's end led the Atlantic Division (42-18-12-3) and had shown no signs of self-reverence over the streak, which ended with a 4-2 loss to the Penguins on Sunday.
Robinson has guided New Jersey with gentleness as well as with flashes of anger that, for example, led him to bench such integral forwards as Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik, and Petr Sykora when their play slipped. Each responded to the benching with renewed vigor. "He doesn't get mad often, but when he does, he tells you to your face what's wrong," says Gomez. "Then he gives you the chance to make it better."
This season, with its late run of success, contrasts with last year, when New Jersey struggled for much of the second half. Not only was coach Robbie Ftorek dismissed and replaced by Robinson, an assistant, with eight games left in the season, but G.M. Lou Lamoriello also shook up the Devils in mid-March by acquiring sniper Alexander Mogilny and skilled defenseman Vladimir Malakhov. Those moves helped New Jersey win the Cup. This year Lamoriello has made only subtle changes. "They have no weaknesses," says Canucks coach Marc Crawford. "Other top teams might do one thing better than New Jersey does, but New Jersey has the whole package."
The Devils had scored the most goals (262) and surrendered the second fewest (175) in the Eastern Conference, and Robinson has been coaching with an eye to the playoffs, spreading around ice time, giving No. 1 goalie Martin Brodeur an occasional breather and resting older players such as defenseman Ken Daneyko and winger Randy McKay. "Last year at this time we had to focus on playing the right way," says Robinson. "Now we're playing the right way, so we're just tweaking. I'm proud of these guys."
Bourque Returns to Boston
Rooting for The Enemy
The Oscar for film editing should go to Mark Chambers, a producer for Boston's game presentation at the FleetCenter, who succeeded in distilling the almost 21 years of Ray Bourque's career as a Bruin into a two-minute tribute that was shown on the scoreboard last Saturday when Bourque, now an Avalanche defenseman, made his first appearance in Boston since he was traded on March 6, 2000. Bourque isn't at the Williams-Orr-Bird level among Boston sports heroes, but he's close. (He played 1,518 games for Boston, behind only the 1,687 that Gordie Howe and the 1,549 that Alex Delvecchio played for the Red Wings as the most with a franchise.) He was totally dedicated to the Bruins, which explains why, when he asked to be dealt from the going-nowhere Bruins last winter, there was hardly a murmur of protest among Boston fans.
Last Saturday fans descended on Causeway Street wearing number 77 sweaters, many with the familiar spoked B and some in Colorado burgundy and royal blue. They were looking for something memorable and got it. They saw vintage Bourque: working the point on the power play, killing six penalties, assisting on two goals, playing a game-high 31 minutes, 46 seconds.
Not until the final minute of Colorado's 4-2 win—when fans chanted, "Ray! Ray!"—did Bourque allow his emotions to percolate. As the horn sounded, he grabbed the puck for a keepsake and took a brief spin around the rink, pointing to the crowd. Boston right wing Bill Guerin, who had received a nasty, unpenalized crosscheck from Bourque in the first period, lingered near the bench and quietly tapped his stick on the ice in homage. Said Guerin, "He deserved it."