With the glory of Lord Stanley’s mighty chalice now within spitting distance for this season’s NHL elite, the time for retribution by roundhouse has long since passed. The modern-day version of playoff hockey doesn’t include bare-knuckled Pier 6ers at center ice any more. True intimidation comes by way of heat-seeking defensemen, who hurtle through the neutral zone like stealth bombers closing in on their target. With their mark in the crosshairs, they strike hard and deliver their message: “This is my house, and I’ll be here all series long!”
At this point, there isn’t time to think; when the frozen biscuit is flying around the ice surface, conscious thought takes a backseat to pure instinct. This deep in the playoffs, it’s crunch or be crunched, and absolutely no one is a more effective on-ice assassin than Devil thumper Scott Stevens.
The veteran blueliner came into the NHL nearly 20 years ago as a rumbling rearguard at a time when the game seemed more like the WWF on skates than the skill show it is today. Though his fistic days are in the past, Stevens’s New Jersey teammates are more than thrilled that he’s on their side, cracking other people’s skulls, and they don’t have to worry about being on the business end of one of the bone-jarring blows that have become his signature.
Over the past two playoffs Stevens has been among the most valuable players in Devil garb, arguably winning series singlehandedly with his unequaled hitting prowess. Remember that Eric Lindros guy? The last time he was on skates, his game ended with a one-way trip to Rubber Knee Boulevard—courtesy of Mr. Stevens. The former Flyer star hasn’t laced them up since—and that was in last year’s playoffs!
This season has seen more of the same, with Stevens leaving his mark on the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. He had two crushing hits and an emphatic ice-ring win in that series to help the Devs to a six-game triumph. Towards the end of Game 2, an unwary Shane Willis ate a Stevens shoulder in the mush, sending him out with a slight concussion and planting a seed of animosity for the remainder of the series. In Game 3, Stevens one-upped himself, laying a huge hit on ‘Canes captain Ron Francis that had the Carolina veteran staggering all the way to the bench like Joe Frazier after a George Foreman haymaker—”Down goes Francis! Down goes Francis!” He, too, was out with a concussion and Carolina was soon out of the playoffs. But before the Devs closed it out, Stevens spent the rest of the series as the clear target of the Carolina team. He would be challenged by ‘Canes defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who took a bare-knuckled whuppin’ in a courageous but doomed effort to stand up to Stevens and his physical brand of justice.
Next up for the Stevens hit parade are the Colorado Avalanche, who have potential targets like Joe Sakic, Milan Hedjuk, and Alex Tanguay for the Devil detonator to set his sights on. Play in the neutral zone will be the key to this Stanley Cup Finals, as the Avs have a pair of backline boppers themselves in the likes of Rob Blake and Adam Foote (not to mention Ray Bourque). Blake might be second only to Stevens in molar-loosening body checks, and whoever lays claim to that center section of ice will give his team a huge advantage in a matchup that should provide great entertainment for hockey fans. If only Colorado stud Peter Forsberg were healthy and on the ice—now that would be a matchup to watch: Stevens and Forsberg head-to-head! Oh well, maybe next year.
Until next time, see ya in the Sin Bin!
This Year’s Playoff Pugilists:
April 17 Bobby Holik (NJ) vs. Dave Karpa (CAR); Round 1, Game 3: These two break from the pack to the delight of the raucous Hurricane faithful. Into the near circle they dance, with Holik holding Karpa in close. In response, Karpa works the body. With Holik barely holding on, Karpa goes with a noogie attack on the top of Bobby’s dome until the zebras work their way into the fray and separate the combatants.
April 17 Brian Rafalski (NJ) vs. Tommy Westlund (CAR); Round 1, Game 3: After Scott Stevens lays out Ron Francis early in this game, all of the ‘Canes go after the Devils’ captain. A melee along the boards sees sticks and gloves a-scattered, and out of the mix comes an unlikely pairing of Rafalski and Westlund, former teammates with the Swedish National Team. They take center stage and Rafalski works the helmet and jersey off Westlund, landing a nice uppercut along the way. They spin apart, attempt to take off their shoulder pads and go in for Round 2, but are held off by the linesmen.
April 17 Scott Stevens vs. Sandis Ozolinsh (CAR); Round 1, Game 3: It’s definitely fight night in Carolina! This third eruption of the game takes place in front of the Devil bench, where, yes, our main man Stevens answers the challenge of Ozolinsh. The Jersey boy starts with a straight right hand, then backs off and beckons his adversary on. Then they square off in earnest, Stevens unleashing a flurry of rights to the back of Sandis’s head, taking him down to the ice and feeding him a few nifty lefts from close range. Props to Ozo for his show of heart, but this mismatch ends accordingly, with Stevens the proud victor and the Devs moving onward.
May 12 Scott Mellanby (STL) vs. Adam Foote (COL); Round 3, Game 1: Finally, a non-Jersey showdown! These evenly matched misfits get it going late in the first game of their Conference Final. A frustrated Mellanby lights the fire and initiates the donnybrook. They grapple in tight, each throwing up-close-and-personal shots that the other receives in turn. Finally distanced by the ever-present linesmen, the two battlers skate to the box, having set the tone for a rugged series to decide the Campbell Conference crown—ultimately, it belongs to the Avs!