How do you explain a team that had the NHL's second-best
regular-season record in 1997-98 but suffered a humiliating
first-round postseason loss to the Senators? According to the
Devils, they fell head over heels into their own neutral-zone
trap. "Most of the season we'd score a goal or two and then shut
down the offense and play not to lose," says center Bobby Holik.
"That got us into defensive habits, and in the playoffs we
didn't have the creativity to score in a tight game."
No player better exemplified the Devils' lopsided season than
Holik, who led New Jersey with 29 goals but didn't light the lamp
in his final 22 games, including the postseason. Holik's drought
kept alive a streak in which no Devil has scored 30 or more goals
since 1993-94, the first season under coach Jacques Lemaire, a
proponent of the offense-numbing trap. After three straight
disappointing playoff performances, Lemaire resigned in May and
was replaced by assistant Robbie Ftorek. "I believe in Jacques's
system," says Ftorek, "though there will be some twists to it."
Ftorek plans to allow his defensemen to rush more aggressively,
and he will rely less on a checking fourth line. After losing
star center Doug Gilmour to free agency, Ftorek will turn to
rookie Brendan Morrison, who showed promise at the end of last
season by scoring five goals in 11 regular-season games. More
goals would ease the stress on netminder Martin Brodeur, who had
a minuscule 1.89 goals-against average but who was fatigued by
the spring after playing in 70 regular-season games.
Brodeur and the rest of the players plan to pace themselves this
season. Following a blueprint perfected by the two-time defending
champion Red Wings, look for the Devils to be less dominant in
the regular season in hopes of being more dominant when the
stakes are higher. "No matter how many points we have during the
season, we start the playoffs with zero like everybody else,"
says Holik. "If you win the Cup, you're on top of the world. Who
cares about anything else?"
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Brodeur's play dropped off in the playoffs. [Martin Brodeur playing goalie in game]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Center Petr Sykora was the Devils' good-luck charm last season.
New Jersey did not lose any of the 14 regular-season games
(13-0-1) in which Sykora scored a goal.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Center Bobby Holik must play offense as he did in the first
66 games last season (29 goals), not as he did in the final 22
--New backup goaltender Chris Terreri needs to be solid so that
Martin Brodeur can get an occasional breather and be fresh
during the postseason.