This is a great time of year for sports fans. The weather is warming up, baseball is in full gear, football teams are going to mini-camp, and the NBA and NHL playoffs are speeding toward their finish.
In the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers have to be thought of as prohibitive favorites after the way they’ve played over the last few weeks, but in the NHL, with only two teams remaining, the race for the Stanley Cup is still wide open.
For the first time since the 1989 playoffs, when the Montreal Canadians beat the Calgary Flames in the finals, the top teams in their respective conferences are facing off with the Stanley Cup on the line. Both the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche had outstanding seasons, but both had trouble getting out of their conference semifinals, with the Maple Leafs taking the Devils to seven games, while the Kings were also pushing the Avalanche to the limit.
After stumbling through that round, both teams played well in their conference finals, each winning in five games. The Devils might have swept the Pittsburgh Penguins except for a seven-minute stretch in Game 2 when they allowed three goals and lost the game.
In the Western Finals, the Avalanche utilized a huge advantage in goal and they capitalized repeatedly when the St. Louis Blues committed needless penalties and punished the Blues with their high-octane power play. Surprisingly, because of their reputation as a defensive team, the Devils led the NHL in goals scored, with 295 during the regular season, an average of more than 3.5 goals per game, while allowing just 2.38 goals per game.
Martin Brodeur hasn’t had to deal with too much activity so far in the playoffs. He had a 2.32 GAA during the season and during the playoffs, he has allowed 1.82 goals per game, while stopping almost 91 percent. He has had a lot of help from a deep group of defensemen who have plenty of playoff experience. The pairing of Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko did a great job against the size of the Penguins, and they’re joined by Scott Niedermayer, back from the horrific hit placed on him by Tie Domi, and speedy Brian Rafalski.
Up front, the Devils have even more depth. The Devils possess, arguably, the top line in all of the game, in Patrik Elias, Peter Sykora and Jason Arnott, a versatile, dangerous group both offensively and defensively.
New Jersey also enjoys the luxury of playing as many as four different lines, with little difference in talent from one group to the next. Alexander Mogilny led the Devils with 43 goals on the regular season, while Elias led the team in points and assists.
John Madden is one of the toughest forwards in the league, as well as being one of the better forward defenders and Bobby Holik and Scott Gomez also give the Devils strong two-way play.
The Avalanche are probably the only team in the league with the talented depth to match the Devils. Peter Forsberg was lost earlier in the playoffs to have his spleen removed, and while he is already skating with the team, he probably won’t be able to play in this series.
Even without Forsberg, the Avalanche have plenty of All-Star caliber players. Joe Sakic may be named the league’s Most Valuable Player, as he led the team in goals (54), assists (64) and points (118), finishing second in goals and points for the entire league.
Milan Hejduk leads all players during the playoffs with 20 points, heading into this series. The Avalanche have two of the fastest forwards in the league in Alex Tanguay and Dan Hinote, as well as Chris Drury, an extremely talented and hard-nosed player.
Colorado also has some of the best defensemen in the league. Ray Bourque is making his third finals appearance, and hoping to win the first title of his brilliant 21-year career. He is still a great player, and will certainly contribute in this series.
Rob Blake was acquired from the Kings during the regular season, and the former Norris Trophy Winner provided the Avalanche with a tremendous lift. Adam Foote is a defense-first player who gives the team great leadership on the blue line and isn’t afraid of digging into the corners against anyone.
Between the pipes, Patrick Roy has been outstanding during the postseason, with a 1.74 GAA and .932 save percentage, although he was pulled from both regular season meetings against the Devils, which were both losses for Colorado, 6-1 and 6-3, respectively.
This should be an outstanding series. The Devils are the defending champs, and the Avalanche have been one of the best teams in the league since moving to Colorado.
Expect a close, well-fought series between two terrific teams that should provide all of the drama that the NBA playoffs might be missing.