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Kasparaitis plays with a cockiness that borders on glee. It's catching on, as the young Isles discover that being in a race can be fun. "This club is on its way," says coach Al Arbour, who also led the Islanders during their glory days. "It's not there yet, but it's on its way."
Arbour, 60, had coached 1,505 games at week's end, more than anyone else in NHL history. He retired from coaching in 1986, only to answer Torrey's distress call two years later. This could be his last hurrah. "I just want to get something going here that's going to be solid," Arbour says. "And then I'll move on to something else. This job is rewarding, sure, but the frustration is overbearing at times."
You don't have to tell that to Herb Brooks, who replaced Tom McVie as the Devil coach this season. Since he led Team USA to the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, Brooks, 46, has been fired by the Rangers, in '85, and the Minnesota North Stars, in '88. This is his third, and possibly last, NHL head coaching job, and at times he seems to be wound so tight that his spring is about to break.
Maybe that's because the rest of the world has caught up with him. Brooks pioneered hybrid hockey, a blend of the free-flowing European and hard-hitting North American styles. It was unique in the 1980s. Everyone uses it in the '90s.
The faceless Devils ought to be Brooks's kind of team. They have Canadians, Americans, Russians, a Finn, a Swede, a Czech and a Slovak. But despite New Jersey's multinationalism, Brooks has found to his disappointment that the Devils are a bust at what the players call Herbie Hockey. They're too big, too slow, too prone to muck in the corners. Playing aggressive defense and a simple dump-and-chase style, they've somehow worked their way into the best position of any of the New York-area teams for the stretch drive. Still, the tension is palpable. "We're not satisfied," says New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who fired McVie after a 38-31-11 season, the best in the franchise's 11-year history. "We feel as though we should be doing better than we're doing."
Curiously, Brooks has spent much of the season alienating his best players. In the Newark Star-Ledger he called veteran center Peter Stastny's $700,000 salary "the biggest heist since the Brinks robbery." Of leading scorer Claude Lemieux, he was quoted as saying, "He's a cancer. I want him out of here." Lemieux, the butt of trade rumors all season, reacted with good humor. "I am a Cancer," he said. "I was born on July 16."
Lemieux, a right wing, is like Kasparaitis, only meaner. He's squinty-eyed, sharp-tongued and abrasive, and he has a tendency to treat teammates and opponents the same way. He's loath to come off the ice at the end of a shift, and he never met a shot he didn't like. But he's tough, he's colorful and he hates the Rangers, qualities the Devils ought to appreciate. "He was always a thorn in everyone's side," says McVie, now an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins. "He's also one of the fiercest competitors that I have ever been associated with. If guys weren't working, he got in their face and told them. You don't have to like him, but, dammit, respect his talent and intensity."
In 1986, when he was playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals, Lemieux bit Jim Peplinski of the Calgary Flames during a bench-clearing brawl. Says Chicago Blackhawk defense-man Chris Chelios, who played with Lemieux on the Canadiens, "He's a passionate guy." So was Dracula. The Devils aren't likely to get to the finals, but perhaps the team doctor should keep a supply of tetanus vaccine on hand just in case.
Sadly, there aren't many bridge-and-tunnel battles left this season. The Rangers will play the Devils and the Islanders one time each, and the Devils and the Isles play each other twice. The stakes are highest for the Devils and the Rangers. For the up-and-coming Islanders, it's pretty much a lark. If the Devils don't make the playoffs, Brooks might be offered up as a sacrifice by Lamoriello, and the future of hockey in New Jersey might be in doubt. How long can a team hold out at the cavernous Byrne Meadowlands Arena, playing before half-empty stands? If the Rangers don't play in the postseason, the bean counters at the Garden could look to dump high-salaried veterans—say, for example, Messier. Ron Smith would be a goner, and Neil Smith's future might be in doubt. "I'm in my fifth month of agony here," Neil Smith says ruefully. "Finally, I think I'm seeing a big white light at the end of the tunnel."
But what if it's a train?