Injuries may prove toughest opponents

Updated: April 6, 2004, 1:52 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

It should be easy to pick the two finalists for this year's Stanley Cup.

The New Jersey Devils are the defending champions, they play tight defense and boast the league's most experienced and playoff-pressure tested goaltender in Martin Brodeur. And, as we all know, the playoffs are all about good defense and great goaltending.

We put them across from the venerable Detroit Red Wings who have won as many Stanley Cups as the Devils in the last 10 years, and have the Fab Five of Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shanahan, guys who can score seemingly at will and have been around forever. And the playoffs are all about timely goal scoring and experience.

Defense, goaltending, goal scoring and experience. It all makes perfect sense -- until you factor in health.

And therein lies the rub. Injuries make New Jersey questionable, Detroit problematical, the Boston Bruins suspect, the Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs puzzling, and the Tampa Bay Lightning one of those teams that could legitimately go ... all ... the ... way.

Tampa? Well, they certainly are healthy enough.

Health is every bit as important as any other factor this time of year. The playoffs aren't just about good coaching, poise under pressure, and skilled productivity on an every-other-night basis; they're also an endurance test.

Think of the Indy 500 with 200 extra laps or a triathlon with an ascent on Mt. Everest tacked onto the end. The Stanley Cup playoffs are often decided not by the best team, but the best team still standing when April gives way to May and May eventually fades into June.

"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is fond of saying. Others would liken it to an abridged version of the 100 Years War.

Which is why it's difficult to bet on the traditional favorites.

Jersey is good. With three Cups (and a seven-game loss in a final) since 1995 and an ever-changing cast of players and coaches, the Devils are a model franchise under general manager Lou Lamoriello. But the strength of the Devils lies mainly in the talent of Brodeur and the leadership, experience and aura of invincibility that emanates from him and captain Scott Stevens. Stevens, however, is still recovering from post-concussion syndrome, and no matter how well Brodeur plays, the Devils aren't the Devils without Stevens' physical play and leadership.

"They don't seem to be the same team without him," said a scout who has been following the Devils for playoff-planning purposes. "They don't seem to have the same sense of confidence."

That's reflected in the fact that the Devils were unable to finish first in the not only in the Eastern Conference, but also in the Atlantic Division. They lost the division lead (and the ensuing home-ice advantage) on the final game of the regular season (very un-Devil-like) and will open on the road in Philadelphia, a team they have owned in the past, but have struggled against with Stevens out of the lineup.

Stevens, who last played Jan. 7, has missed 43 games with an ailment that could well end his stellar career. Brodeur this week said that Stevens was "nowhere to be seen," and defenseman Scott Niedermayer said the team is prepared to play the entire postseason without him.

Of course, you can never rule out the miracle comeback. But if Niedermayer's statement is accurate, the Devils have a hole in their physical and emotional makeup that cannot easily be filled. The absence of Stevens alone makes the Devils a team like most others in the playoffs this spring. They're a team that can win, but that's different from being a team that knows it will win.

It gets worse when you consider Brian Rafalski's injury. Rafalski played in the Devils' season finale on Sunday, but that's an awfully quick comeback from a broken right leg suffered on March 9. The fact that he's one of the Devils' best defensemen further weakens a team that is built around defense and already is missing their No. 1 player at the position. Throw in injuries to Eric Rasmussen (some sort of knee injury in the final game of the season) and Grant Marshall (broken hand) -- as well as several we surely don't know about -- and the Devils are not as formidable as in the past.

It's not all that much different in Detroit, where the core of the great teams that have won three Cups since 1997 (and lost to the Devils in 1995) is attempting to win at least one more. The stakes are high because this squad is starting to feel its age. It was considered old when it last won the Cup in 2002, and older still when it was swept by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round last spring. General manager Ken Holland has freshened the lineup a bit over the course of this season, but the core is still among the oldest in the NHL and there is a hint that some of them might call it a career after this campaign.

Sometimes old is good in the NHL, especially if the experienced talent is also exceptional talent. But older teams tend to pay a higher physical price over an 82-game regular season, and the Red Wings have battled injuries all year. They captured the Presidents' Trophy because they were able to compensate for most of them, but it's a more difficult feat under the rigors of the postseason schedule.

Though the Red Wings have key injuries at every position, coach Dave Lewis says the team has never been healthier. But how healthy are they?

Topping the list of injuries is goaltender Curtis Joseph and his balky right ankle. Joseph, who had an MRI last week and was slated to begin skating Monday, has been all but ruled out of starting Game 1 against Nashville. Manny Legace is a more-than-adequate backup, but he has all of 11 minutes of playoff experience on his resume and has rarely played under the weight of expectation. The Red Wings have enough talent to overcome a bad game or two, but if Legace falters and Joseph isn't ready, well, Nashville did beat them three times this season.

The Wings have other health issues as well. Robert Lang, the replacement for Sergei Fedorov and an integral part of the Red Wings' attack, is still recovering from a serious rib injury. The former Washington Capitals center was gunning for the NHL scoring lead when he was sidelined on March 8. He played in two of the Red Wings' last three games of the season and has proclaimed himself to be 100 percent. While that could be true, his ribs are certain to be a focal point for a Nashville team that can deliver its share of hits.

But Lang isn't the only target that might not hold up to repeated shots. Kris Draper (rotator cuff injury), defenseman Jason Woolley (back), defenseman Darien Hatcher (knee, shoulder) and defenseman Mathieu Dandenault (broken right foot) are recovering from injuries as well. Defenseman Mathieu Schneider is playing again, but he's had leg and shoulder injuries for a good part of the regular season and might also be vulnerable.

The Wings have been able to compensate for injuries because of their depth, a quality that former Wings coach Scott Bowman felt was crucial to their success.

Still, there is always a chance a team will run thin at the wrong time.

Like now.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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