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GOALIES FOR GLORY
HOT NETMINDERS SPARK MIGHTY DUCKS, DEVILS

Several years ago, Jack Parker, the famed coach at Boston University, was leaving church when he bumped into an old friend. The gentleman didn't know much about hockey but had watched Parker's team lose after the Clarkson goalie made 54 saves. Later that night, the Bruins lost to Edmonton when the Oilers' Bill Ranford made 48 saves.

"Jack," the man said, "I don't get your game. Why do they call it hockey?"

"What do you mean?" Parker asked.

"Shouldn't they call it goalie?" the man asked.

Perhaps they should.

Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been the story of the playoffs this season after leading the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. It's how it works at this time of year. Goaltending might be the most important position in any team sport. The club with the better one usually wins the series, and Giguere has been best through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Giguere has a 12-2 playoff record with a 1.22 goals-against average and .960 save percentage while playing behind airtight defense. He posted three straight shutouts in the Western Conference finals sweep over Minnesota. If the Ducks win the Cup, Giguere is a virtual lock for the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs.

The Ducks will meet another great one in Martin Brodeur tonight when they play the New Jersey Devils in the finals opener. Brodeur has been sensational with a 1.60 GAA, a .938 save percentage and four shutouts among his 12 victories. And Brodeur has been in this position before, with two Cups and an Olympic gold medal already in his pocket.

It might not be the most exciting finals in history, but it does have some compelling storylines. Brothers Niedermayer, Anaheim's Rob and New Jersey's Scott, will become the first siblings since 1946 to play against one another in the finals.

Ducks coach Mike Babcock, in his first season behind the bench, took over a team that finished last in the Pacific Division three straight years and guided it into the finals.

Devils coach Pat Burns, exiled for all but eight games of the previous two seasons, has his team playing for the title in his first year in New Jersey. This marks the third time in four years the Devils are playing for a championship.

Here's a look at the two teams:

Anaheim Mighty Ducks

What's up: The Ducks are the surprise team of the postseason after finishing seventh in the conference and rolling over Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota. For years, they revolved around veteran star Paul Kariya. He's still a major factor, but Anaheim's success is born from its commitment to defense.

Former Sabres blueliner Keith Carney is playing the best hockey of his career at age 33. Sandis Ozolinsh, acquired from Florida during the season, has been a great addition and leads the Ducks with a plus-minus ratio of plus-9. Kurt Sauer might be a rookie, but he isn't playing like one at plus-7. Giguere has been praised for his play with good reason, but he has faced very few rebounds in these playoffs. He usually stops the first shot, and his teammates quickly converge on the crease to clear loose pucks. It's why the Ducks' have won 10 games in the postseason decided by a goal.

The Ducks are also getting balanced scoring, which creates matchup problems. Thirteen players have accounted for their 33 goals, with Kariya's five leading the way. Nine have scored winners in the 12 victories. With everybody contributing, it's no wonder why they have such strong team chemistry.

What's down: The Ducks are paying a price for their success. Tonight's game in New Jersey will be their first since May 16, when they completed their sweep of the Wild. Some might view the time off as rest, but it could be rust. Goalies especially want to keep playing when they're on a roll.

Anaheim has enough veteran players, but few have been in this position. Kariya, Adam Oates, Steve Thomas and Steve Rucchin have combined for 55 years on NHL experience, but none has won a Stanley Cup.

New Jersey Devils

What's up: The Devils had an easy time with Boston and Tampa Bay and had a 3-1 series lead against Ottawa before getting pushed to seven games. They are still the Devils, loaded with talent and experience. Burns might have been the perfect choice as coach based on his commitment to defense. The Devils were built with sound two-way players.

John Madden loves big games and had played very well through the playoffs. Teams have stopped worrying about Madden stopping their top scorers because they're too concerned with stopping Madden. He and Jamie Langenbrunner lead the Devils in scoring with 15 points apiece.

Jeff Friesen has just nine points in 17 playoff games, and the Devils want more. But he scored three winners in the Eastern Conference finals. Scott Stevens is still an all-time gamer. Scott Niedermayer has played very well. The biggest surprise might be Jay Pandolfo, who has never looked so good. Rochester native Brian Gionta continues to prove he's a bigger man come playoff time.

And, of course, there's Brodeur. Don't let the smile fool you. He is a fierce competitor who seems to make every big save. He also gives New Jersey an extra puck-handler in the defensive zone, which is one reason the Devils are very good in transition. Everybody quickly gets into position, and they stick to the game plan.

What's down: Joe Nieuwendyk has been unproductive while trying to fight through injuries. He was basically useless in Game Seven against Ottawa and watched most of the game from the dressing room. They need him to get well soon.

Patrik Elias, who had 20 goals in 73 career playoff games, has scored just twice in 17 games this year. He's one of their go-to guys but this is a postseason he would rather forget from an individual standpoint.

Same goes with Scott Gomez. He was a key player in the Devils winning the Cup in 2000 and reaching the Finals a year later, but he has one postseason goal. He has been skating much better lately, however, after disappearing in the first two rounds.

Outlook

The Devils have the superior team when everybody is playing well. The worst thing that could have happened to the Ducks -- yes, the Ducks -- was New Jersey playing a long series. The Ducks might be the people's choice, but it's very difficult to stay sharp while waiting for nearly two weeks. Take the Devils in six games.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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