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Trio Grand To beat the Avalanche, the Devils must overcome the best three defensemen to play together in a generation

Rob Blake drifted in from the blue line to the right face-off
circle and blasted the puck through the legs of New Jersey Devils
goalie Martin Brodeur, whose pads had formed one big tunnel of
love for the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup
finals in Denver last Saturday night. The third-period goal was
the cotton candy near the end of a long night at the amusement
park for the Avalanche and enough to keep Blake parked on the
bench for the last 10 minutes as the opener of the most keenly
anticipated final series in a dozen years droned to a 5-0
conclusion. Blake passed most of the time opening and closing the
gate for his teammates, a job that usually pays closer to minimum
wage than $5 million a year. He's one defenseman who does it all.

These Cup finals were hardly an open-and-shut case just because
of Colorado's emphatic Game 1 victory. But the worst road game
played by a championship team since Napoleon tried to capture
Moscow neatly defined the challenge the Devils face. New Jersey
must find a way to get around the Colorado defensemen, to
transform Blake and Raymond Bourque and Adam Foote from pillars
into pylons. There are other prisms through which this series can
be refracted: the matchup between the Avalanche's Patrick Roy,
the tortured soul who has won more NHL games than any other
goalie and who turned in his 18th career playoff shutout in Game
1, and the eternally sunny Brodeur, a butterflyer who was a
bundle of exposed nerve endings in the opener; the scoring duel
between the Devils' A-line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr
Sykora, which produced only three shots in the first game, and
Colorado center Joe Sakic, who bears a staggering offensive
burden in the absence of spleen-less sidekick Peter Forsberg but
seemed unfazed by it in beating Brodeur twice in the opener; and
Bourque's attempt to win his first Cup after 22 NHL seasons and
1,820 regular-season and playoff games, a quest for a Holy Grail
that has taken on more dramatic tones than Wagner's Siegfried if
you've listened to all the violins being bowed daily by the
media. However, for the clearest, and most clearheaded, look at
the finals, they must be viewed through 3-D glasses.

Blake, 31, Bourque, 40, and Foote, 29, are today's version of the
original Big Three who played for the Montreal Canadiens in the
1970s: current Devils coach Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy
Lapointe. The match between the OBT, all three of whose members
are in the Hall of Fame, and the Big Three II isn't exact, but
there are similarities. Blake, like Robinson, his teammate and
later his coach with the Los Angeles Kings, is a tough, rangy
hitter, though Blake's trademark is the kind of shot that he
whistled past Brodeur, while Robinson's was a 90-foot
tape-to-tape breakout pass up the middle. Bourque, among the best
three-zone defensemen ever, is even more steadfast than Savard
was, though Bourque lacks a signature move like the Savardian
spin-o-rama that would free space for the lumbering Canadien. The
analogy falls flat at Lapointe, a superb two-way defenseman, and
Foote, an energetic thumper, but collectively the Avalanche
defensemen have almost everything the OBT had--except a nickname.

For Colorado coach Bob Hartley, playing the Big Three II almost
constantly--at least one of the trio was on the ice for all but
six minutes of the 45 minutes and 36 seconds played before
Blake's goal in Game 1--is an irresistible indulgence, but it's
also a treat for the defensemen. During most of the 1990s, before
he saw his Stanley Cup dreams receding with the Boston Bruins and
asked for a trade, Bourque was obliged to provide on-the-job
training for young defensemen. The same task in Los Angeles often
fell to Blake, who as a rookie in 1990 had been schooled by
Robinson. For the first time in their careers, the Big Three II
are teaming with defensemen as accomplished as they are. "It
challenges us every game," says Blake, who was paired with
Bourque against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference
finals before Hartley switched Bourque back with Foote to counter
the Arnott line and give Blake more license to attack. "You see
the other guys have a good shift or a good period, and it brings
your level of play up. It's worked well that way."

Thanks to Roy and the most dazzling collection of forwards in the
conference, the Avalanche had been getting by with mostly
middling defensemen since winning its only Stanley Cup, in 1996.
Colorado had some intriguing blueliners, but never a dominating
presence. Upon pondering his trading-deadline options the past
two years, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix decided each
time to deal for the sexy blue line name, Bourque in 2000 and
Blake this season, to complement the most irascible and least
known of the Big Three II.

Give Foote an inch, he takes a yard. He's remarkably nasty, even
if he doesn't throw the last-rite shoulder checks that New
Jersey's Scott Stevens sometimes dishes out. "Those three guys
are all very good at what they do," Devils center Bobby Holik
says, "but Foote is as tough to play against as anybody. He never
gives up. He won't go away."

Like his father, Vern, a retired Toronto police officer, Adam
was born to serve and protect. Vern ran a strict household, and
if Adam sometimes chafed at the rules, he now appreciates the
long-term benefits of his upbringing. "At times I couldn't do
things that other guys could," he said on the morning of Game 1,
"but now I know I'm doing things that other guys aren't. He
definitely taught me discipline."

Foote's self-discipline hasn't always been evident. He's loud,
excitable and not always a portrait of grace in defeat. When the
New York Rangers upset the Quebec Nordiques, the Avalanche's
forebears, in the first round in '95, a crestfallen Foote
returned home to Toronto.

"Want to watch the game with me tonight?" Vern asked, referring
to Hockey Night in Canada.

"When you come home," Adam replied, "do you watch Cops?"

"Foote's still very emotional, but he controls his emotions a lot
better than he used to," Lacroix says. "My first few years here,
his weakness was that he wanted to be such an important element
of the team's success. There's nothing wrong with that, but
sometimes he'd go overboard. The comments from people on the team
at the time were, 'Oh, no, not again. The wires are touching. The
poor guy's losing it.' He's matured, but he still is always at
the limit."

The Devils had hoped that the Big Three II, who were averaging
29:54 per man in the playoffs, were reaching their limit as the
finals began. Robinson, Savard and Lapointe often played even
more minutes than that, but the game and the players have evolved
in the past 25 years. "Maybe over a short time [a coach can play
his top defensemen so much], but it'll take a toll," Robinson
said last Thursday. "Back then the game wasn't as quick, and you
didn't have all that size. Almost everybody now is [at least] six
feet and over 200 pounds, and they're all trained to the gills.
If Hartley's going to use them that much, we have to take
advantage of it by wearing them down."

New Jersey planned to dump the puck behind the Avalanche
defensemen--send medium-paced floaters to the corners or use
cross-corner shoot-ins to entice Roy far from his net--and then
hammer the Colorado blueliners. Given the size and speed of the
Devils' forwards, it seemed like a reasonable approach. It just
didn't work. "Until the third period I don't think Blake or Ray
or Foote got hit all night," Robinson said after Game 1, "and
Sakic could have worn eggs in his pants."

Then again, the Big Three II aren't the easiest of targets. They
are all adept at employing survival tactics to fend off
forecheckers, especially Bourque, who broke wing Randy McKay's
left hand early in the second period of the opener with an
awkward check near the New Jersey bench. Bourque wouldn't still
be playing five years after last call if he couldn't protect the
puck and himself, which he did with 12 minutes left in the third
period by dumping Arnott along the boards seconds after Arnott
had knocked off Bourque's helmet with his stick when they tangled
at center ice. The 6'1", 205-pound Foote merrily jumped into the
ensuing scrum, taking a double-minor penalty for roughing.

The 6'4", 227-pound Blake can more than handle himself too, but
Hartley said he wanted him close at hand when the frustrated
Devils began running around near the end of the game. That
explanation defied credulity: Why would Hartley keep sending out
the grizzled, 5'11", 219-pound Bourque but feel the need to
coddle the much younger Blake? The question may have been
answered after the game when Blake was seen limping slightly
outside the dressing room.

Maybe the biggest difference between the OBT and the Big Three II
is that Robinson, Savard and Lapointe won five Stanley Cups over
seven seasons in Montreal. Bourque, Foote and Blake might stay
together for four months and one Cup. Bourque will ponder
retirement after the finals--he will receive $6.5 million next
season if he plays and a $1 million thank-you buyout if he
doesn't--while Blake becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1,
which was the reason he was traded by the Kings on Feb. 21.

Blake said publicly for the first time last week that he would
consider re-signing with Colorado, but he's keeping his options
open, and Lacroix must also deal with his other star free
agents, Roy and Sakic. Forget 3-D. The final time you see Blake,
Bourque and Foote, who's signed with the Avalanche through
2004-05, in the same picture, they may be holding the Stanley

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Hitting a Hinote Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is upended as Avalanche right wing Dan Hinote visits the cage during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals (page 60). [Leading Off]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Still going strong At 40, Bourque, here tangling with Arnott in Game 1, remains a potent force.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Adam bomb Though he's known for his hitting, Foote excels in all aspects of the game.

"Foote is as tough to play against as anybody," says the Devils'
Holik. "He never gives up."