PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Game 1.
As the two best teams in the conference during the regular season, it comes as no surprise that the Devils and Senators will meet for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup finals starting Saturday in Game 1.
While New Jersey has reached the conference finals for the third time in four years, Ottawa had never advanced past the second round before this season. The Senators have every reason to feel confident against the Devils since they were the only team to win three games against New Jersey in the regular season.
Some of the Senators have talked openly about winning the Stanley Cup, but Devils coach Pat Burns doesn’t want to hear that kind of talk from his team.
“We don’t talk about Stanley Cups,” Burns said. “We talk about conference finals. We go step by step. I’ve been reading a lot about them, how they want the Cup and how they want to win the Cup and how the Cup is important. Well, to get to the Cup, you’ve got to go through somebody first and that’s us. And I think that we’re ready for that.”
Both teams had relatively easy times in the first two rounds, with New Jersey needing 10 games to dispose of Boston and Tampa Bay. Since losing its opening game of the playoffs, Ottawa went 8-2 against the New York Islanders and Philadelphia.
Clearly, the Devils are facing their biggest challenge of the playoffs. The Senators had a league-best 113 points during the regular season, and have exceptional depth up front with six players who scored 20 goals or more.
Facing top-seeded Ottawa puts New Jersey in the very unfamiliar position of underdog.
“We’re the underdog and that’s the way it should be,” defenseman Ken Daneyko said. “That might be good for us. I think we’re a little bit afraid that if we don’t play our best, we can get blown out here. They’re a good team. They’re very skilled. At times it can be intimidating looking at their lineup. But, hopefully, we’ll be able to contain some of that high-flying offense.”
Burns had it easy in the first two rounds, compared to the matchups he will have to deal with against the Senators.
In the opening round, he put his best defensive forward—center John Madden—against Boston’s Joe Thornton, and tried to get captain Scott Stevens on the ice as much as possible against the Bruins’ top line. In the semifinals, he matched Madden and Stevens against Tampa Bay’s top unit of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Vaclav Prospal.
Not only did Madden perform superbly on the defensive end, but he is also tied for the team lead with 11 points. Stevens leads the league with a plus-10 rating in the postseason despite missing most of Game 3 against the Lightning after being hit in the ear with a shot.
It remains to be seen whom Stevens will face against the Senators. Ottawa has scorers on almost every line. The most likely choice would be against the line that has Marian Hossa, who has a team-best five goals and seven assists in the playoffs.
Hossa, who has struggled in recent playoffs, has already surpassed his previous best of four goals in a 12-game run last year.
“Last year was probably the first playoff where (Hossa) competed well and took it to another level. This year, he kept progressing,” said Senators coach Jacques Martin.
Even if Burns matches Stevens against Hossa, the Senators have several other potent scorers in captain Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Havlat, Bryan Smolinski and Radek Bonk. Havlat had three goals and seven points in four games against the Devils during the regular season.
Though Ottawa has a highly skilled attack, it often uses a neutral-zone trap and is very good at frustrating opponents into mistakes.
The Senators allowed just 10 goals in six games against Philadelphia and none on the power play. Since opening the playoffs with a 3-0 loss to the Islanders, Ottawa has not surrendered more than two goals in any game.
Much of that credit belongs to Patrick Lalime, who is eager to prove he belongs in the elite class of goalies. Beating Hart Trophy finalist Martin Brodeur and leading the Senators to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time would go a long way toward helping him reach that status.
Brodeur, however, is in the midst of another outstanding postseason, notching a .941 save percentage while winning eight of 10 games. Lalime has been just about as good, going 8-3 with a .937 save percentage.
Game 2 is Tuesday at the Corel Centre.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Devils - 2nd seed; beat Boston Bruins 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1, semifinals. Senators - 1st seed; beat New York Islanders 4-1, quarterfinals; beat Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Devils - Jamie Langenbrunner, 7 goals; Madden, 7 assists; Langenbrunner and Madden, 11 points; Patrik Elias, 18 PIM. Senators - Hossa, 5 goals and 12 points; Hossa and Wade Redden, 7 assists, Chris Neil, 18 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Devils - Power play: 18.4 percent (7 for 38). Penalty killing: 85.7 percent (24 for 28). Senators - Power play: 18.5 percent (10 for 54). Penalty killing: 93.8 percent (45 for 48).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Senators, 3-1. The Devils won the first meeting 2-1 in Ottawa on Oct. 10, but the Senators took the next three, outscoring New Jersey 12-6. Brodeur allowed 10 goals on 73 shots in the final three meetings.