Raise a cup to this matchup: Devils-Avalanche in best vs. best


DENVER, AP

Finally, the NHL got it right — the two best teams, the two best goalies, in a Stanley Cup final that seems to have it all, right down to a tearjerker of a story line of the aging star with his last chance to win the big one. The New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche play Game 1 on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, site of the All-Star Game and, now, 3 1/2 months later, an All-Star final pairing of the two No. 1 seeds — the first such matchup in the Stanley Cup finals since Calgary-Montreal in 1989. Such a finale rarely occurs in perhaps the most upset-filled of the major pro sports, one where a deflected puck off a skate blade can undo six months of achievement and advance an underdog. This time, however, there’s plenty of stars and subplots for all — reat goalies in Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, scoring stars in Colorado’s Joe Sakic and the Devils’ A-Line and the quest of 40-year old Avalanche defenseman Ray Bourque for his first Stanley Cup in his 22nd season. “It’s the two best teams in hockey,” Devils forward Scott Gomez said Friday.

Some in Avalanche’s locker room, too, where Bourque has his self proclaimed “best chance and, maybe, my last chance” for a John Elway-type finish in which a superstar finally wins a title just as his career is ending. The Avalanche’s problem is the defending champion Devils seem to have it all going their way, coming off a five-game demolition of Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals and possessing the can’t-beat-us swagger of most championship teams. The Devils can stake a legitimate claim to greatness, too, should they repeat last year’s finals victory over Dallas and win their third Stanley Cup since 1995, becoming only the fourth team since expansion — the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens are the others — to win so many cups. Still, the Avalanche, who had the league’s best regular-season record (52-16-10-4) and thus own home ice advantage, seem a little annoyed that another victory party in the Meadowlands parking lot seems a foregone conclusion to many. Some took notice of Devils coach Larry Robinson’s remarks that appeared to question if Colorado truly was the Western Conference’s best team, and those by several Devils suggesting the finals would be much like the Penguins series. As if defending against the Devils line of Patrik Elias, Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora, which produced 10 goals against Pittsburgh and 22 overall in the playoffs, wasn’t bad enough, the Avs must defend their very place in the finals. By playing the first two games and, possibly, four of seven in an arena where twirling pom-pons create a whiteout effect reminiscent of a Rocky Mountain blizzard, the Avalanche can control the line pairings against the A-Line, the most productive in hockey since midway through the second round. It also means Robinson must be creative to get havoc-wreaking Bobby Holik, who was in Lemieux’s face throughout the conference finals, on the ice against the high-scoring Alex Tanguay-Sakic-Milan Hejduk line. And one unwanted matchup could make the difference in a series featuring two of the best big-game goalies ever in Roy, who is 14-6 in Stanley Cup finals games — 8-1 since Montreal lost in six games to Calgary in 1989 — and Brodeur, who has a record-tying four shutouts this spring and is 8-2 in finals games, 5-0 on the road.