No. 1 Colorado (52-16-10-4) vs. No. 1 New Jersey (48-19-12-3)
Season series: New Jersey won 6-1 at Colorado Dec. 5, and 6-3 at home March 13.
How they got here: Colorado defeated No. 8 Vancouver in four games, No. 7 Los Angeles in seven and No. 4 St. Louis in five; New Jersey beat No. 8 Carolina in six games, No. 7 Toronto in seven and No. 6 Pittsburgh in five.
Forwards: The Devils' top line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora lately has been touted as the best in the game, but faces a classic challenge from Avalanche MVP candidate Joe Sakic and wingers Milan Hejduk, who leads all playoff scorers with 20 points, and Alex Tanguay. Second-line contributions will be a key. The Devils' Scott Gomez and Alexander Mogilny are slumping, and the Avs' Chris Drury has a big task replacing injured center Peter Forsberg. With third-line checking center Bobby Holik and Selke Trophy nominee John Madden centering the fourth line, the Devils have the depth edge.
Defense: The Avs' top pair of Adam Foote and Ray Bourque will be matched against the Devils' No. 1 line, and New Jersey will try to keep Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko out against Sakic. Rob Blake's booming slap shot gives the Avalanche a powerful weapon, but the Devils' 5-9 Brian Rafalski leads all defensemen in the playoffs with 15 points. Scott Niedermayer has only one point since returning from the Tie Domi knockout blow in the second round, but he's plus-4 in four games and has averaged 21:33 of ice time, lending a valuable puck-moving presence.
Goaltender: Colorado's Patrick Roy has won three Stanley Cups and is the all-time leading playoff goaltender in victories. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, whose father was the Canadiens' team photographer when Roy played in Montreal, grew up as Roy's biggest fan. But that doesn't mean Brodeur, who has won two Stanley Cups, will take a backseat to Roy. Although Brodeur has received some unusual criticism during the playoffs, he has continued to play confidently. He has the lowest playoff goals-against average of all active goaltenders with at least six appearances.
Special teams: With Blake and Bourque at the points, Colorado's power play has produced an NHL-best 17 goals in the playoffs compared with 13 by the Devils on six fewer chances. Hejduk and Arnott both have four power-play goals, tying them for the playoff lead. There's virtually no difference in the effectiveness of the penalty-killing units, but the Devils were terrific against the Penguins, holding them to 2-for-14 in the conference finals. Stephane Yelle and Shjon Podein are the top penalty-killing forwards for Colorado, but the Devils' John Madden and Jay Pandolfo are more of a threat to score short-handed.
Coaching: Colorado's Bob Hartley and the Devils' Larry Robinson couldn't come from more disparate hockey backgrounds. Hartley has no professional playing experience and worked in a windshield factory until he was 27. Robinson was a Hall of Fame defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens dynasty in the late 1970s who has played for or coached eight Cup winners. Hartley only recently began rolling four lines after receiving criticism for overworking his stars. Robinson uses his entire roster, does a good job matching lines and has his defense playing at its peak.
Intangibles: Colorado is the sentimental favorite because this is a chance for the 40-year-old Bourque to inscribe his name on the Cup after nearly 21 full seasons in Boston. There's a remote shot that Forsberg, who had his spleen removed, might return for Game 6 to provide an emotional lift. The Avs have home-ice advantage, but the Devils own a 6-2 playoff road record. Overshadowing everything else is the brilliance of the Devils' defensive scheme coupled with their transition offense and their depth. If they take Sakic out of the equation, the Avs are in big trouble.
Prediction: Devils in six games. -- Newsday
(Best of seven)
Today -- at Colorado, 8 p.m., ESPN
Tuesday -- at Colorado, 8 p.m., ESPN
Thursday -- at New Jersey, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7
June 2 -- at New Jersey, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7
*June 4 -- at Colorado, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7
*June 7 -- at New Jersey, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7
*June 9 -- at Colorado, 8 p.m., chs. 2, 7
* -- If necessary