The Devils are among the conference leaders, but their new coach is feeling heat over his team's lack of scoring
After the Devils beat the Leafs 2-0 last Friday night in New Jersey, Patrik Elias agreed that his second goal in 22 games—a wrister through Ed Belfour's five hole made possible when Elias's feed for Sergei Brylin caromed off a defenseman and back onto Elias's stick—was the result of a lucky bounce. "First one this season," Elias said with a smile.
Despite a stellar 21-12-2-3 record through Sunday, New Jersey has had a maddening season offensively, primarily because its top two scoring threats, Elias, 26, and center Joe Nieuwendyk, 37, are battling the worst slumps of their careers. Elias, who had 40 goals two seasons ago but only eight at week's end, has been shifted among lines and flip-flopped between center and left wing without success. "I've been working hard, playing hard, getting great chances," says Elias. "Sometimes the puck doesn't want to go in."
Nieuwendyk, an eight-time 30-goal scorer, had just one goal in his last 29 games and three for the season at week's end. How bad is Nieuwendyk's luck? In last Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto he was stoned point-blank by Belfour, who had 50 saves in the game.
Irritated by his team's lack of punch—the Devils' 2.3 goals per game ranked 26th—coach Pat Burns reacted angrily last Thursday to perceived criticism by the media that his defense-oriented system was to blame. "That's horses—-," said Burns, who is in his first season in New Jersey. "Are you going to tell me there's one player I told, 'Don't score a goal'?"
Twenty-four of the team's 38 games have been decided by one goal or ended in a tie, a trend that several Devils said could prove physically and mentally draining by the time they get to the postseason. Still, the team is successful—no small consolation to Burns. "Thank Jesus we're still winning," he says, "because I know that [if we weren't] everybody'd be tearing me apart."
NHL Coaches' Poll
Who Is the Best Fighter?
Fighting may be down this season (through the season's first 595 games there had been 612 fighting majors compared to 775 over the same span last season), but what brawling has occurred has produced a clear champ: the Oilers' 6'3", 245-pound right wing Georges Laraque. SI polled NHL coaches, offering anonymity for their candor, and of the 25 who responded to the question, "Who is the league's best fighter?" 15 named Laraque. Said one coach, "Laraque, hands down. Or should I say, gloves down? That question was too easy."