The 2000 Stanley Cup finals can be summed up in two ways: 1) You
play the New Jersey Devils, you take a number, and then you wait
patiently until your name is called to get your butt kicked by
defenseman Scott Stevens. Among the Devils, Stevens is the Great
Satan, the authority figure responsible for meting out
punishment. Whenever some high-flying Einstein on the opposition
makes the mistake of keeping his head down as he carries the
puck into the New Jersey zone, Stevens will starch him. His hits
are hard, scary and legal. 2) Dallas Stars right wing Brett Hull
has always had a firmer grasp of the time-space continuum than
any sniper of the past decade. He possesses a unique ability to
probe and find the mushy spots in any defensive zone coverage,
then unleashes a shot so menacing that goalies deserve more than
a mask and pads--they ought to have a blindfold and a cigarette.
"Hull's still the best pure shooter in the league," says Devils
coach Larry Robinson. "Bar none."
To praise Hull or any player as a pure anything is also to
faintly damn him, the designation being a well-intentioned but
backhanded compliment that calls attention to the impure parts
of a player's game. To categorize Hull as a pure scorer or
Stevens as a pure thumper is to misread how each has transformed
himself into a player of far greater depth than video highlights
Robinson does not mean to slight either player. He marvels at
the nuances that have crept into Hull's play the past two
seasons, such as a previously untapped willingness to backcheck
and an enthusiasm for doing things other than whistling a puck
past a goalie. (He did that 494 times in the 1990s, more than
anyone else.) Robinson also lauds the meticulous play and
forceful leadership of the 36-year-old Stevens, an 18-year
veteran who used to react to everything on the ice as if he were
an exposed nerve.
The finals should meander deep into next week, a long and sweaty
series between two teams that seem to revel in making life as
difficult for themselves as possible. The series will turn on
goaltending--Ed Belfour's confident run for Dallas against the
play of Martin Brodeur, whose brilliance seems to fade in and
out like a cell phone that keeps losing its signal--special
teams, face-offs, Dallas's creaky legs and one compelling matchup.
Stevens is a left defenseman, Hull a right wing. At every
opportunity Robinson will have Stevens on the ice against Hull
and his partner, game-breaking center Mike Modano. Through three
rounds Hull was the leading postseason scorer, with nine goals
and 11 assists, passing the late Maurice (Rocket) Richard and
Mike Bossy for fifth place in career playoff goals (86). Through
three rounds Stevens simply was the NHL's leading player,
dominating not with flair but with forcefulness. Stevens had
taken only two minor penalties despite being matched against the
Florida Panthers' Pavel Bure in the first round, the Toronto
Maple Leafs' Mats Sundin in the second and the Philadelphia
Flyers' top line in the third.
Hull is the forward who finds the creases, Stevens the
defenseman who creases the forwards.
This wasn't the first time Stevens had thrown a check like The
Hit, the shuddering shoulder-to-jaw jolt that felled an
inattentive Eric Lindros in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference
finals; in Game 2 of the 1995 Cup finals he clobbered Slava
Kozlov of the Detroit Red Wings with an equally fearsome check.
The hits came from the same place, from the heart and from the
shoulder, but there was a difference in Stevens's reaction to
After crushing Kozlov, Stevens spotted Detroit's
burr-under-the-saddle winger, Dino Ciccarelli, and mouthed the
words, "You're next." Last Friday, three hours after what Devils
center Bobby Holik called "a play that legends are made of, a
play that will never be forgotten," Stevens was doing his utmost
to forget it. He was near tears, crestfallen over the possible
career-ending concussion Lindros had suffered (INSIDE THE NHL,
page 75). Where once there had been bravado, now there was
sadness. Robinson had to pull Stevens aside after the first
period of the 2-1 victory to remind him he had done nothing
other than his job.
Stevens is the most effective hitter in the NHL because of his
balance, his timing and his ability to read the play--"Scott's
just like one of those fighter pilots who gets someone in his
sights, locks in and boom," says Devils defenseman Ken
Daneyko--and Lindros had his head down while stickhandling
through traffic at the blue line, an embossed invitation for
disaster. An older and smarter Stevens had simply stepped in to
deliver the blow. Now he was looking for neither praise nor
thanks, but an exit.
The Hit had obliterated Lindros, but it also overshadowed
everything else about Stevens's dominating Game 7 performance.
In the first period Stevens hip-checked hulking center Keith
Primeau behind the Devils net, blocked four shots and actually
caught a fifth, fielding an Adam Burt drive from the point as if
it had been some broken-bat flare to shortstop. Brodeur, in the
New Jersey net, said, "Wow, what a save." Stevens was putting on
the greatest one-game display by a defenseman that Devils
assistant coach Jacques Caron had ever seen. "Given the
circumstances, absolutely," Caron says. "Remember, I go back to
the days of Bobby Orr." Smoking one of the biggest, most
powerful forwards in the NHL was only part of it.
Stevens is of middling size, 6'1" and 215 pounds, unlike Dallas
defenseman Derian Hatcher, who at 6'5" and 230 pounds, blots out
the sun. In today's bigger, faster, stronger NHL, Stevens has
ruled the game from the back because this erstwhile hot-head has
matured. Earlier in his career Stevens did not have a short
fuse; he had--in the words of wing Randy McKay, his teammate for
nine seasons--"no fuse. He got out of hand all the time."
Stevens had a chip on the shoulder with which he was leveling
opponents, settling scores and ignoring the scoreboard. He had
to learn how not to seethe, how to be the kind of leader
Robinson expected after Devils coach Robbie Ftorek was fired on
March 23 and Robinson was promoted from assistant coach.
Robinson met with Stevens upon taking over and told him how
splendidly he thought Stevens wore the C. Stevens still gets his
captain's crunches--he gave Philadelphia center Daymond Langkow
a concussion in Game 2 after wiping out Toronto's Tomas Kaberle
and Kevyn Adams in Game 5 of the second-round series--but he now
holds his position and waits, a weapon ready to be unleashed.
"I've never seen a player so physically dominating," Holik says.
"Teams were like, 'Oh, hey, let's not go this way, there's Scott
Stevens.' I played with Scott against Sundin's line, and you
could see them coming at you because they didn't want to come at
Scotty. He makes a difference."
Was Hull having fun yet? He kept pumping shots past Colorado
Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy during the Western Conference
finals--one-timers on the power play, two-on-ones off the
wing--but Hull's responses were muted, pats all around for his
teammates but not even the traditional raised stick. He had an
air of indifference about his goals, to say nothing of the
fulsome praise he now hears about "his complete game" offered by
Dallas center Guy Carbonneau, among others. He was never
expected to block shots, was he? "To be honest, no," Hull said
last Saturday when asked if he enjoyed his new defensive
responsibilities after the 3-2 win against the Avalanche in Game
7. "It's a helluva lot more fun to score. I shouldn't say that."
But being Brett Hull, he did. He is without guile, a beacon in a
sea of tight lips and guarded phrases, a player true enough to
himself to always admit this: Scoring goals is easy for him;
playing hockey is hard. If his style is old-time hockey, the
good old days were 10 years ago when huge offensive numbers were
in vogue. The adjustment for a one-time 86-goal scorer to the
Stars' conservative ways has been easier in his second season in
Dallas, but Hull, 35, will always be a human Frisbee, a soaring
spirit. "This is fun for me now," says Hull, who finished the
regular season with a career-low 24 goals, 11 on the power play.
"It isn't always fun for me, but it's fun when you win."
Heading into the finals, he has 20 game-winning postseason goals
in his career, another 15 that tied a match. As Edmonton Oilers
coach Kevin Lowe said when Hull scored the series-winner in the
first round, "He has an uncanny ability to do squat the whole
game and come up with the big goal late."
Hull is an inviting target for a defenseman such as Stevens, but
not an easy one. He rarely has the puck for any longer than it
takes to release it. Modano does the heavy lifting on the line,
lugging the puck, looking for Hull as soon as the right wing
enters the offensive zone. "He's so good at finding that hole,"
Modano says. "The other team turns their heads for a second, and
they lose him."
Theirs is a remarkable partnership, based on a shared hockey
sense and the ability to hit each other with passes that are as
hard as many players' shots. Because Hull usually sets up fairly
high on the left side during a power play--better to one-time
his right-handed shot--he is even more elusive to a prowling
defenseman. If Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock plants Hatcher or
another size XXXL attacker in front of the net, Stevens will be
Hull had a goal, an assist and 10 shots on net in Dallas's two
regular-season games against the Devils (both one-goal victories
for the Stars), but that is no more meaningful now than Hull's
once describing himself as "the laziest man alive." Yesterday
doesn't count. The Stanley Cup finals is about today, tomorrow,
next week. For six or seven games they will be together, stopper
and scorer, face to face, the Great Satan staring directly into
the fires of Hull.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Down in front Stevens, who stopped this shot in Game 5 against Philadelphia, has been the most dominant player in the postseason.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO FIRST STAR Nobody one-times the puck as well as Hull, who led the playoffs in scoring entering the series against New Jersey.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA HARD-DRIVING As they did against Philly, Elias and Co. plan to crash the crease in the finals.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO FIRING AWAY Dallas gets offense from the point as Roy, with Jere Lehtinen screening, found out.
"Hull has the uncanny ability to do squat the whole game," said
Lowe, "and come up with big goals late."