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Game is never over for Devils' Stevens

At workouts, finishing checks, captain's ethic leads.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


TAMPA -- It was just another morning skate before a game against an overmatched opponent in the waning days of another 82-game season.

But there was Devils defenseman Scott Stevens, bathed in sweat, looking as if the effort given in that 30-minute workout March 27 was just as important as what would transpire that night against the Lightning at the Ice Palace.

And in some ways it was.

Though the unquestioned leader of the defending Stanley Cup champions, Stevens is not the type to give paint-peeling locker room speeches. Instead, the captain works with a purpose, whether it be perfecting his footwork in practice or demolishing opponents such as Eric Lindros and Carolina's Shane Willis and Ron Francis with ferocious body checks.

"It's how you act and what you do on and off the ice that counts," Stevens said when asked his definition of leadership. "It's how you prepare yourself for every game. When things have to be said, yes. But that's not a constant."

"He competes every night," teammate Bobby Holik said. "If you see the way he plays every night and you still don't want to do your best, you have to feel guilty about that."

Stevens' work ethic isn't just a blueprint for others' success. It has worked wonders for him as well.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder from Kitchener, Ontario, is a 12-time All-Star and was last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP of the Stanley Cup final, in which the Devils beat the Stars.

He is plus-357 in 19 NHL seasons, including eight with the Capitals and one with the Blues, and has never had a minus season, extraordinary for a defenseman.

Stevens, 37, whose Devils open the Eastern Conference semifinals tonight against the Maple Leafs, never has won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman. But he is considered the prototype of the stay-at-home backliner, and he is one of the game's most feared hitters.

His battering-ram blast of Lindros in last season's Eastern Conference final sent shock waves through the league. His crushing blow on Willis during this season's conference quarterfinals put the Carolina forward in the hospital.

All three hits, including the one on Francis, caused concussions. All three were clean.

When asked if the hit on Willis was necessary with the Devils ahead 2-0 and 11.7 seconds remaining in the game, Stevens said, "The game is never over. I don't know how much time is left. I finish my checks."

"He certainly sent a message," Devils defenseman Sean O'Donnell said. "That's how he leads this team. In that department, we ride his coattails."

It is not intimidation for intimidation's sake. Stevens knows if the opposition is keyed up and keyed in on him, energy is diverted from winning the game.

"I'm not going to change the way I play," he told the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., after Game 3 of the Carolina series. "If someone comes at me, they come at me. That's fine. I'll deal with it after it happens."

Stevens grew up a huge Maple Leafs fan, and he got his first real lessons about playing defense from watching Borje Salming. Stevens liked that Salming was "a complete defenseman" who was steady in his zone and could score.

Stevens can score as well. He had a career-high 21 goals in 1984-85 for the Capitals, and he scored 18 (along with a career-high 78 points) in 1993-94 for the Devils. But he hasn't had double-digit goals since '93-94, and this season's 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists) were his most since that season.

Part of that stems from New Jersey's myriad offensive weapons, who allow Stevens to concentrate on defense and the lessons learned from Capitals standout Rod Langway.

"The first thing in this league is you want to play well defensively," Stevens said. "That's what people will be looking for. After that, you can work on other parts of your game.

"And be consistent. Everything starts from consistency as a player. If you can find that, that's important. You don't want to be up and down."

Not coincidentally, those are the lessons Lightning coaches have been trying to force-feed their young defensemen. General manager Rick Dudley said he wants Tampa Bay's Cory Sarich to develop in the Stevens mold.

"He plays with great emotion, great toughness, and he plays the same way every game," Dudley said of Stevens. "He seems to be able to take it to another level at important times."

And during a relatively meaningless game in late March in Tampa.

Second-round playoff previews

Eastern conference

Devils (seeded No. 1) vs. Maple Leafs (7)

FIRST ROUND: New Jersey beat Carolina 4-2; Toronto beat Ottawa 4-0.

SEASON SERIES: 1-1-1.

THE LOWDOWN: The Maple Leafs proved heart is as important as skill while wiping out the pathetic Senators. Toronto is sky-high right now with G Curtis Joseph hitting peak form and the defense -- especially the penalty kill, which shut out the Senators -- rounding into shape. But the defending Stanley Cup champs won't be pushed around like Ottawa. Their offense is better, and they plan to put Joseph under pressure.

KEYS TO VICTORY: New Jersey -- G Martin Brodeur must be better than he was against the Hurricanes; kick-start the power play that ran at 8.3 percent efficiency in the first round. Toronto -- Joseph must continue stellar play; forwards Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts must find a way around Devils defenseman Scott Stevens.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Devils in seven.

* * *

Sabres (5) vs. Penguins (6)

FIRST ROUND: Buffalo beat Philadelphia 4-2; Pittsburgh beat Washington 4-2.

SEASON SERIES: Penguins 3-1.

THE LOWDOWN: Believe it or not, this series might be a greater defensive struggle than the Penguins' series with the Caps. Buffalo and G Dominik Hasek were No. 1 on defense during the regular season. Pittsburgh's left wing lock system and G Johan Hedberg held Washington to three even-strength goals of 10 scored. Then again, the Penguins were awful on the penalty kill in the first round with a 68.1 percent efficiency. And the Sabres, with Chris Gratton, Steve Heinze and Donald Audette playing well, have the No. 1 playoff power play and have scored a playoff-high 21 goals.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Buffalo -- Hasek, Hasek and, oh, Hasek; a better penalty kill, which was ordinary against the Flyers. Pittsburgh -- Constant motion from Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr to create scoring chances; test Hasek often and get in his way.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Penguins in six.

* * *

Western conference

Avalanche (1) vs. Kings (7)

FIRST ROUND: Colorado beat Vancouver 4-0; Los Angeles beat Detroit 4-2.

SEASON SERIES: 2-2.

THE LOWDOWN: The Avalanche was only as good as it needed to be against the Canucks. After a slow start against the Red Wings, Los Angeles played aggressively at both ends of the ice and stayed out of the penalty box. Goaltending likely will be the difference, and right now the edge goes to the Kings, who are riding red-hot Felix Potvin. It will be interesting to see how Rob Blake plays in Los Angeles and Adam Deadmarsh in Colorado.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Colorado -- Overwhelm the Kings with its offensive weapons, led by MVP candidate Joe Sakic; hope G Patrick Roy is more interested in this series than he was against the Canucks. Los Angeles -- Settle down the penalty kill, which is working at a playoff-worst 66.6 percent efficiency; give Potvin lots of help and hope he stays sharp.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Avalanche in six.

* * *

Stars (3) vs. Blues (4) FIRST ROUND: Dallas beat Edmonton 4-2; St. Louis beat San Jose 4-2.

SEASON SERIES: Blues 1-0-2.

THE LOWDOWN: A statistical dead heat that could turn on Dallas' playoff experience. All three regular-season games went to overtime. The Blues scored 249 goals during the season, the Stars 241. Both teams had 72 power play goals. The Stars had 412 assists, the Blues 408. The Blues had 657 points (goals, assists), the Stars 653. The biggest difference: St. Louis had 15 short-handed goals to Dallas' seven.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Dallas -- Do not let up on defense, something at which it excelled during the regular season; Brett Hull (one goal against Edmonton) must break out. St. Louis -- Pierre Turgeon, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis must not let Stars G Ed Belfour rest; G Roman Turek must eliminate the occasional soft goal.

CRISTODERO'S PREDICTION: Stars in seven.

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