The Devils Who Analyze the Details

Who is the hero of the Devils’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals, which continues this week at the Meadowlands? Most would name Brian Rafalski, the little defenseman who elevated his game after his teammate Scott Niedermayer so stupidly decided to hurl his head into the unsuspecting elbow of Toronto pacifist Tie Domi and fake a concussion. (What? That’s not what happened? Gotta stop downloading Don Cherry‘s “Hockey Night in Canada” segments on the Web.)

The unsung heroes, though, might be the Devils’ pro scouts, Bob Hoffmeyer and Andre Boudrias. Against Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals, they recognized that the highly skilled Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, et al., liked to skate the puck over the blueline and were not particularly adept at dumping it into the opposition zone to recover it and generate offense. This allowed Jersey coach Larry Robinson to employ the neutral zone trap to perfection and distraction against the Pens. “Have you ever tried playing against the trap?” a smiling Lemieux asked reporters who had literally pinned him against a wall with a forest of microphones and cameras after Game 4. “It’s like this right here. You can’t get through. There’s nowhere to go.”

When the trap forced Pittsburgh to dump the puck in, Devs goalie Martin Brodeur did what no keeper does better—he gobbled it up and fired it right back out. Those few times Pittsburgh did recover the puck, Jersey’s physical defenders—Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Sean O’Donnell, Colin White, and Rafalski—challenged the Penguins before they could work it to the net. Time and again, they wrestled the puck free in the face-off circle and quickly passed it to a winger waiting just inside the blueline, starting the play the other way, often catching the Pens deep in the Devils’ zone.

So what is the Devils’ plan against Colorado? Aesthetics be damned—most likely more of the same. Like Pittsburgh, the Avalanche also play exciting run-and-gun hockey, and are not good at dump-and-chase—especially since they dealt rugged center Adam Deadmarsh to Los Angeles for star defenseman Rob Blake this winter and since Peter Forsberg would be insane to try to play after having his damaged spleen removed less than three weeks ago.

Colorado is better in their own zone than Pittsburgh (who looked like they borrowed the Rangers’ muddled defensive playbook), but once again, Jersey has superior depth and plays four strong lines of forwards, while the depleted Avs will probably wilt playing three lines or less. Patrick Roy might steal a game or two, but no more.

So load up the SUV, break out the mosquito repellent, and get ready for that big bash in the Meadowlands parking lot. Looks like the Cup will stay right there.

Metro Retro

All the new ballparks being built these days feature retro details, like brick facades, asymmetrical outfield configurations, and manually operated scoreboards. But there’s only one retro stadium element that can truly stir the hearts of nostalgic Mets fans: the blue and orange metal panels that decorated Shea Stadium’s exterior when the place opened in 1964. Whatever happened to them, anyway? Are they gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere, perhaps waiting to be called back into service when the Mets’ endlessly delayed new stadium is finally built?

Don’t hold your breath, Mets fans—the panels are gone for good. “I don’t think we have them anymore,” says Bob Mandt, the team’s VP for special projects. Mandt, one of the few Mets employees who has been with the club since its 1962 inception, and a man who clearly enjoys telling stories (“This is probably more than you want to know, but write it down anyway,” he told Jockbeat at one point), explains that the panels were originally supposed to be multicolored. “But then Mets management decided that they should be blue and orange, which are the team’s colors. And the city agreed, because those are also the city’s official colors. Not many people realize that.”

The panels remained in place until the Mets were purchased by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon in 1980. “When you buy something, you know, you want to do something with it to make it yours,” says Mandt. “So they wanted to create a whole new look. The plan was to replace the panels with huge canvas sheets that would feature alternating images of the Mets logo and the American flag.” But the cost proved prohibitive, so after the metal panels were taken down, nothing was done to replace them. “And to this day,” adds Mandt, “the cables that the panels were mounted on are still there. Are you getting all of this?”

Mandt isn’t sure when or how the panels were disposed of, but in any case the team no longer has them, which seems rather shortsighted—wouldn’t they make great souvenirs? “Oh, I don’t think you’d really want one if you knew how big and heavy they were,” says Mandt. Then, after a pause, he adds, “Now if we had saved some of the old wooden seats, those would make good souvenirs! Lemme tell you about them . . . ”

Charlie No-Hustle

While they’re his fourth team in as many years, it seems like the Mets may have found the right guy at the right time for right field in the form of journeyman Darren Bragg. The 31-year-old outfielder, who was released by the Rockies last July and spent the second half of the season out of baseball before New York signed him as a nonroster free agent over the winter, has impressed the Mets since his mid-May call-up from Norfolk. He’s provided not only a potent, much needed left-handed bat, but the kind of hustle the Mets wish they were seeing out of last fall’s semi-phenom, Timo Perez.

While there’s no denying that Perez has been hampered by injuries at various points this season, more than once his play had us flashing back to his infamous baserunning blunder in Game 1 of last year’s Subway Series. We were at a game recently when Perez sliced a ball down the left-field line that should have been an easy double for a runner of his speed—except Timo got a sudden attack of Rickey Henderson disease, loping down to first, watching to see if the ball was going to drop in fair, and he had to settle for a single. The next batter up promptly hit a grounder, and Perez helped make certain it was turned into a double play by leisurely trotting onto the infield grass and well out of the line of fire rather than trying to break up the throw to first.

Combine Perez’s blasé baserunning (he hasn’t stolen a single base through the first quarter of the season) with his sorely undisciplined hitting (a leadoff batter who walks once in his first 86 at-bats? That’s worse than even Mookie Wilson) and you start to understand why manager Bobby Valentine‘s not exactly racing to get Timo back in the everyday starting lineup before he’s totally “healed.”

(Mostly) Metclips

• Baseball stat of the season so far: Mike Hampton has more home runs than Todd Zeile. . . . • Does anyone else think Mike Mussina looks like one of those goofy mechanical drinking birds when he does that deep dip as he goes into his stretch? . . . • Overheard recently at Shea: “If Robin Ventura was in a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third. . . . • Has anyone else noticed that the Mets’ descent down the toilet really accelerated when they named John Franco captain and stuck that big ugly C on his jersey? . . .

Contributors: Stu Hackel, Paul Lukas, Billy Altman
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman