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Despite big markets, Stanley Cup Finals shopping for buzz

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - To pump flagging interest for its under-appreciated product, the NHL might have designed an ideal matchup in the Stanley Cup Finals. It would have paired teams representing New York and Los Angeles, two large metropolitan areas with extensive TV audiences.

That bracket would have attracted celebrity sizzle, news media buzz, and more snap, crackle and pop from fans than you could shake a hockey stick at. But the Rangers and the Kings did not make the playoffs.

The NHL will have to settle for the Bizzaro World version of its ideal Cup Finals. It will be the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim against the mighty Devils of New Jersey.

The Devils qualified by beating the Ottawa Senators, 3-2, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday night at Corel Center in Ottawa, exactly a week after the Ducks eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the West.

So when the Devils and Ducks play Game 1 on Tuesday night in New Jersey, the Ducks will have had more than 10 days off.

The series will pit the Devils, who have won the Cup twice and will make their fourth trip to the final round in the past nine seasons, against the Ducks, who had not made it past the second round until this year. It will match a veteran coach, the Devils' Pat Burns, against a rookie coach, the Ducks' Mike Babcock.

Although the teams met only twice during the regular season (both Devils victories) there will be some familiarity, if not contempt. The Devils will send out defenseman Scott Niedermayer against his brother, Ducks forward Rob Niedermayer. The Devils will also be familiar with Anaheim's Peter Sykora; the Ducks will recognize the Devils' Jeff Friesen. These two forwards were key elements of a multi-player trade between the two teams last summer.

But in this lengthy tournament of low scores and long overtimes, the most intriguing matchup in the Cup Finals will be in goal.

The established goaltender is the Devils' Martin Brodeur, who is a candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie and the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player.

His opponent will be the Ducks' Jean-Sebastien Giguere, whose four shutouts and 1.22 goals-against average have made him a candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. Brodeur is 31 and a veteran of 10 seasons. Giguere is 26 and has played only two full seasons in the NHL.

"When I look around me, there's not too many guys that are older than me anymore," Brodeur said after making 24 saves Friday night. "It kind of hits you a little bit. Definitely young bucks coming up. There will be a lot of pressure on him and a lot of pressure on me."

The Devils will be favored because they were the second-seeded team in the East and the Ducks were the seventh-seeded team in the West. But the Devils may be the tired team. They had a 3-1 series lead on the Senators, but then struggled as the Senators tied it at three games each, forcing Game 7.

Before that, the Devils needed five games to get past the Boston Bruins and five to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Ducks have played only 14 games since April 10 after sweeping the defending champion Detroit Red Wings, ousting the Dallas Stars in six games and sweeping the Wild with three shutouts and allowing only one goal in the other game.

Burns acknowledged, grudgingly, that his team will be favored. "If people say, 'You are the favorite,' I am going to say, 'Excuse me, so was Detroit, so was Dallas; they were all favorites, too,' " Burns said. "So I don't think anybody is a favorite."

With veterans like Niedermayer, Brodeur, Jamie Langenbrunner, Friesen, Sergei Brylin, Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens, the Devils have more depth and late-round experience. But Ducks general manager Bryan Murray has added veterans like Sykora, the other Niedermayer, Adam Oates and Steve Thomas to support Paul Kariya.

The Ducks may be healthier in part because Joe Nieuwendyk, a regular center for the Devils, missed all but two minutes of Friday's game with what Burns said was a hip bruise.

Although the teams have never met in the playoffs, they may learn much about each other with as many as seven games in 14 days. John Madden, the Devils' top checking forward, probably will be assigned to stop the top line of Kariya, Oates and Sykora.

"I think that's safe to say," Madden said. "We'll get to know each other real quick."

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