For most of the Devils' first-round playoff series against Pittsburgh, the best hockey was found in the hallway outside the wives' lounge on the Meadowlands Arena ground floor. There, the sons and daughters of Martin Brodeur, Krzysztof Oliwa, Bob Carpenter, and Scott Stevens most under four years old engaged in slam-bang competition with miniature sticks and a ball. It was easily more exciting and intense than the sluggish, mistake-filled games their fathers were playing not far away.
Then, in Sunday's Game 6, the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr single-handedly lifted the series to a level no kid or NHLer could touch.
The Devil dads found themselves in a seventh game Tuesday night, facing a third straight early exit after a first-place regular season. New Jersey played at a 15-4-4 clip in March and April, while Pittsburgh was 5-10-6. "They don't have our depth, size, or talent," said Devil center Bobby Holik after Game 5. An injured Jagr missed four games. So how could this happen?
First, the Devils were outcoached, flummoxed by a familiar defensive scheme. "Pittsburgh played the way we played a few years ago, clogging up the neutral zone, their defensemen jumping up," said defenseman Ken Daneyko after a listless Game 2. But Jersey seemed unprepared for it and was slow to adjust.
The Devs often looked confused, appearing to have no system of their own, sometimes unable to get out of each other's way. They were plagued by inconsistency in their aging defense, which couldn't skate with Pittsburgh's quick forwards, and among their own forwards, who seemed to forget their net-crashing roles.
And then there's the goaltending. Each spring a subtle league-wide playoff theme emerges in the first round. Some years it's lots of overtime; some years it's shorthanded goals, or road victories, or upsets. This year, it's awful goaltending, and Martin Brodeur is not immune. Jagr's last-minute game-tying goal Sunday from behind the net on Brodeur's left, just like Stephane Matteau's in '94 and Adam Graves's in '97 was the most damaging but not the only softy he allowed. In the playoffs, you live and die with your goalie, and Brodeur has flirted with the Big Sleep.
But mostly, the Devils lack hunger. They took leads in games and the series that they could not hold, content with previous accomplishments, just as they have each spring since their '95 Stanley Cup title. Even if they advance to play Buffalo in the second round, theirs is not the mind-set that wins championships.