Patrik Elias vs. Bret Hedican

Updated: May 4, 2006, 1:02 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

HERO -- PATRIK ELIAS
The skilled Czech forward missed the first 39 games of the NHL season recovering from a bout of hepatitis A incurred during the lockout when he was playing in Russia. At one point, the illness looked as though it might keep Elias from hockey for the entire season and there were concerns his career might be in jeopardy.

Fast forward to Elias' return to the lineup. At the time, coach Larry Robinson had quit and GM and team architect Lou Lamoriello had stepped in for the floundering Devils. Almost instantly, the Devils' season turned around and they rocketed from also-ran to Atlantic Division champs on the last night of the regular season.

The Devils never missed a beat, and neither did Elias, a two-time Cup winner in Jersey who leads all NHL playoff scorers heading into the second round with 11 points. This in spite of the Devils' playing just four games in sweeping the Rangers.

Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have received a lot of press, and deservedly so, for their terrific chemistry, but Elias is the undisputed leader in the dressing room. In the absence of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, Elias has stepped into the breach in dramatic fashion.

Elias is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and his stock has never been higher. Still, he has been reticent, for obvious reasons, to discuss where he might end up at the end of the season. He said he has more immediate concerns, such as trying to lead his Devils past Carolina and back to the conference finals and beyond.

VILLAIN -- BRET HEDICAN
In general, the Hurricanes' defensive corps is an anonymous bunch. There's Aaron Ward and Mike Commodore and Oleg Tverdovsky and Glen Wesley.

All capable, none considered a "star" in the Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger mold.

But if there is a critical situation, a lead that needs protecting or a deficit that needs to be cut, the man coming over the boards will be Hedican. Of all the Eastern Conference defensemen left in the playoff tournament, none has logged as much ice time as Hedican, who, at 35, is averaging 25:19 a night. A native of St. Paul, Minn., Hedican was added to the U.S. Olympic roster and is in his second tour of duty with Carolina.

He was part of the 2002 team that surprised most observers by advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, so he understands the dynamics of playing under pressure.

Against the Devils, Hedican can expect to see a lot of ice time against Gomez and Gionta. It's a tall order for 6-foot-2, 210-pound Hedican, but he has shown he can play a physical style without giving in to penalties, which can destroy a team's momentum.

In the end, it might not be a question of whether Hedican is up to the challenge of shutting down the Devils but of whether the Devils are ready to take what Hedican can dish out.