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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Shooting Blanks
The Devils are among the conference leaders, but their new coach
is feeling heat over his team's lack of scoring

After the Devils beat the Leafs 2-0 last Friday night in New
Jersey, Patrik Elias agreed that his second goal in 22 games--a
wrister through Ed Belfour's five hole made possible when Elias's
feed for Sergei Brylin caromed off a defenseman and back onto
Elias's stick--was the result of a lucky bounce. "First one this
season," Elias said with a smile.

Despite a stellar 21-12-2-3 record through Sunday, New Jersey has
had a maddening season offensively, primarily because its top two
scoring threats, Elias, 26, and center Joe Nieuwendyk, 37, are
battling the worst slumps of their careers. Elias, who had 40
goals two seasons ago but only eight at week's end, has been
shifted among lines and flip-flopped between center and left wing
without success. "I've been working hard, playing hard, getting
great chances," says Elias. "Sometimes the puck doesn't want to
go in."

Nieuwendyk, an eight-time 30-goal scorer, had just one goal in
his last 29 games and three for the season at week's end. How bad
is Nieuwendyk's luck? In last Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Maple
Leafs in Toronto he was stoned point-blank by Belfour, who had 50
saves in the game.

Irritated by his team's lack of punch--the Devils' 2.3 goals per
game ranked 26th--coach Pat Burns reacted angrily last Thursday
to perceived criticism by the media that his defense-oriented
system was to blame. "That's horses---," said Burns, who is in
his first season in New Jersey. "Are you going to tell me there's
one player I told, 'Don't score a goal'?"

Twenty-four of the team's 38 games have been decided by one goal
or ended in a tie, a trend that several Devils said could prove
physically and mentally draining by the time they get to the
postseason. Still, the team is successful--no small consolation
to Burns. "Thank Jesus we're still winning," he says, "because I
know that [if we weren't] everybody'd be tearing me apart."

NHL Coaches' Poll
Who Is the Best Fighter?

Fighting may be down this season (through the season's first 595
games there had been 612 fighting majors compared to 775 over the
same span last season), but what brawling has occurred has
produced a clear champ: the Oilers' 6'3", 245-pound right wing
Georges Laraque. SI polled NHL coaches, offering anonymity for
their candor, and of the 25 who responded to the question, "Who
is the league's best fighter?" 15 named Laraque. Said one coach,
"Laraque, hands down. Or should I say, gloves down? That question
was too easy."

COLOR PHOTO: FRANK GUNN/AP Elias, who averaged nearly 35 goals the last three years, hadonly eight through Sunday.

COLOR PHOTO: MATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS NHL coaches named the Oilers' Laraque the top fighter--by aknockout.