For once, the Ottawa Senators didn’t fold like a cheap accordion.
Patrick Lalime remembered how to play goal -- cover the short side, eh? -- and 19-year-old rookie Jason Spezza stepped into the lineup to record a goal and an assist as the Senators prolonged the Eastern Conference finals with a 3-1 victory over the Devils on Monday at the Corel Centre.
The Devils still hold a 3-2 series lead and can advance to the Stanley Cup finals against the Mighty Ducks by winning Wednesday at the New Jersey Swamplands. Remember, too, that the Senators were 0-6 in previous elimination games and were flat in losing Game 4; they perked up Monday after an inspirational pre-game speech by cancer-stricken assistant coach Roger Neilson, but they can’t go to that extreme again. If they can’t motivate themselves now, when will they?
“We have no leeway,” Coach Jacques Martin said. “We’ve got to bring forward our best effort and play even better than we did tonight.”
Monday’s solid effort aside, the Senators have yet to prove their grit matches their skill, making it likely the Devils will pull this out.
And that could be bad news for the Ducks.
The Ducks could beat the Senators because Jean-Sebastien Giguere is clearly superior to Lalime, the Duck defense has better balance and their scoring has been more evenly distributed. But they would meet their match in the Devils, who are a super-sized version of the Ducks with potential edges in key areas.
The Devils have more experience -- more than a dozen have won the Cup in New Jersey or elsewhere -- and can play a more physical style because of their rugged forwards and well-constructed defense.
And although Giguere has been remarkable, Martin Brodeur is capable of matching him.
The two Quebec natives have similar builds, styles and temperaments, but Brodeur has been this far down the road many times before and Giguere hasn’t.
So far, Giguere has been immune to pressure. But with Jay Pandolfo, Joe Nieuwendyk, John Madden and Jamie Langenbrunner trying to get in his face, his defense will be tested, and that defense has been instrumental in blocking shots and limiting the dangerous chances Giguere must stop.
Either way, the Ducks will be well-rested and have 10 days off before the finals start Tuesday at the home of the East champion. That’s plenty of time to scout and figure out ways to take this success story to yet another level.
Voice from the Past
Three weeks before the playoffs began, when the Duck crowds were still sparse, former Duck coach Ron Wilson chided fans for not filling the Arrowhead Pond.
“They’re missing something special,” he said.
“You never know how far this team can go in the playoffs. They have scoring, speed, and great goaltending.”
Wilson, now coach of the San Jose Sharks, was gracious enough not to gloat about his clairvoyance.
“They have a lot more talent than they’ve been given credit for. They’ve been beneath the radar screen most of the season,” he said from his home near Hilton Head, S.C.
“Someone asked me if I had a dark horse for the playoffs and I picked Anaheim. One, because of their goaltender, and two, I think they did a great job the second half of the season, picking up Sandis Ozolinsh, Steve Thomas and Rob Niedermayer. They quietly became a good team....
“I don’t think it’s a fluke with what they’ve done. They’ve taken advantage of being somewhat underestimated by Detroit and Dallas. Those teams probably thought, ‘The Ducks will give us a tough time, but we’ll win.’ It obviously didn’t work out that way. They should be in the finals. They deserve it. It’s crazy to think they’ve lost only two games.”
The East, he said, has been fairly normal. “Ottawa is probably the best team on paper,” he said. “It’s like things have flip-flopped,” he said. “The East is playing exciting hockey and the West isn’t.
“Maybe this is the year the surprise team that gets to the finals is in the West. Last year it was Carolina and before that, it was us in Washington [in 1998]. In the West, it’s always been the same three or four teams until this year.”
Wilson said he has already had a number of conversations with new Shark General Manager Doug Wilson (to whom he’s not related) about how to revive the team, which was widely expected to contend for the Cup but instead missed the playoffs. The Duck success has already given Ron Wilson some ideas.
“They’ve given hope to everybody, especially the way they’ve done it with total commitment to the team,” he said.
“It’s a great example for me to hold up in training camp next season.
“We do have some talent. Because of what the Ducks are doing and what Minnesota was able to do in getting to the conference finals, if you can convince your team to play similarly, you’re in good shape.”
Wilson plans to watch on TV rather than visit the Pond “because I don’t want to be a distraction.”
His loyalties are divided between his wish for Paul Kariya and Steve Rucchin to do well and his ties to Devil General Manager Lou Lamoriello, a fellow Providence College alum.
“I’ll be pulling for them,” he said of the Ducks. “Anaheim, to me, is not a Cinderella story.”
Kudos to the Minnesota Wild for a splendid run to the West finals.
Now, can it do it again?
Expectations will be higher next season, as they should be. No team wants to be a one-year wonder, as Carolina was last season.
But the Wild’s payroll, a league-low at about $21 million, will surely rise next season, perhaps disrupting the chemistry carefully created by Coach Jacques Lemaire and General Manager Doug Risebrough.
In addition, Marian Gaborik, Pascal Dupuis, Manny Fernandez, Antti Laaksonen and Willie Mitchell are restricted free agents and will likely get large raises. Contract disputes could destroy that all-for-one, one-for-all spirit that carried the Wild this season, and the organization lacks the depth to compensate for the absence of one of its core players.
The Wild does have a solid foundation, although Gaborik must prove he can fight through checks after being neutralized by the Ducks. Forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard played well in limited duty and defenseman Nick Schultz has immense promise. Fernandez made a strong case for owning the starting job next season instead of resuming Lemaire’s two-headed goalie system.
“I can’t say enough about my players and the way they played all year,” Lemaire said. “I look at this team as guys that didn’t have experience, and they lived through a great deal of experience by going into these playoffs and I think they learned a lot. They learned what it’s like to play against top players every night and they learned how to play against a top team at their best.”
Red Wing prospect Igor Grigorienko of Russia was seriously injured in a single-car accident last week in his hometown of Togliatti. Initial reports were sketchy but he is said to have broken a hip and a leg and later had surgery. His car was so badly mangled, rescuers took an hour to extract him from the wreckage, according to the TASS news agency. Grigorienko was drafted in 2001 but hadn’t been signed.
Oh, those loony Canadians: A member of Team Canada’s delegation at the recent world championships tucked a $1 coin -- known as a loony for the engraving of a loon on one side -- into one of the nets for good luck. Canada won, so the loony is now headed to the hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. It will join another loony that was buried beneath the ice in Salt Lake City and brought similar golden success to Canada’s men’s and women’s Olympic teams at Salt Lake City.
The Stars waived forward Pierre Turgeon, who was a healthy scratch in Game 4 of their second-round loss to the Ducks but came back with a strong effort the next game to help the Stars stave off elimination. Age and lack of grit were his downfall.
Max McNab, father of Duck assistant general manager David McNab, was the Devils’ general manager from Nov. 22, 1983 through Sept. 10, 1987. He was replaced by Lamoriello, who has held that job since. The elder McNab, a longtime hockey executive, had a bitter parting and severed his ties in 1995. David McNab said his father might come to Anaheim to watch the finals and will have a clear favorite. “He’ll be cheering for our club,” David McNab said.
“There were times I was in New Jersey [scouting] and he wouldn’t even go to games with me.”