Monday, June 9, 2003

When is a hit a late hit?

Stanley Cup notebook

By Alan Robinson
The Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Could a major league baseball player charge from the dugout and blind side Kerry Wood just after he's thrown a pitch?

Could an NBA player sneak up behind Shaq just after he's released a free throw and level him with a shot to the knees?

Of course not. Which is why some NHL players and coaches dislike the unflattering image their game projects every time a player is staggered by a hit such as that thrown by the Devils' Scott Stevens against the Ducks' Paul Kariya in the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night.

Kariya, leveled a millisecond after getting rid of the puck at center ice, lay motionless on the ice and looked as if he might be seriously hurt. But he was cleared to play again in minutes and returned to a thunderous ovation to score a goal in the Ducks' 5-2 victory.

The Ducks, of course, felt the hit was a late one because Kariya didn't have the puck. The Devils, of course, strongly defended Stevens, one of hockey's notorious big hitters. Coach Pat Burns even made a caustic comment that, "Obviously, he wasn't that hurt," because Kariya came back to score a goal.

The NHL didn't even wait until the game was over to rush out an official statement by officiating chief Andy Van Hellemond that the hit was legal.

"It was a legal hockey hit," Van Hellemond said.

As Stevens said afterward, physical play is as much a part of hockey as goaltending and scoring goals. In many cases, hockey is essentially football on skates, with players pushing, shoving, maneuvering, fighting and using their strength to gain time and space to do their jobs.

But football also has rules to protect the unprotected - roughing the quarterback, clipping, spearing. Hockey's rules, some players say, often seem to vary widely depending on which rule book interpretation is being followed which week.

(Case in point: the memorandum made public after Brett Hull, his skate clearly in the crease and apparently in violation of what was a much-enforced rule that season, scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6 against Buffalo in 1999.)

"You're supposed to have the puck," in order to be hit in that situation, Ducks coach Mike Babcock said of the Kariya hit.

Burns' reaction to that?

"It doesn't matter what Mike Babcock says," Burns said. "The league said it's a clean hit and I'm satisfied with that. I'm not going to comment on what he says, that's for sure."

Babcock had more to say about it Sunday after the Ducks arrived in New Jersey for Game 7.

"Scott Stevens does what he does, he was doing his job," Babcock said. "I still think the hit was late. But he doesn't care what I think."



The Devils had a bumpy ride to Game 7, and not just because they couldn't hold 2-0 and 3-2 leads.

The Devils' flight ran into turbulence in the Midwest caused by a band of thunderstorms. The result was one of the worst flights Martin Brodeur can remember in years of flying.

"It was bumpy there for a half-hour," he said. "I was thinking, 'If we don't make it, they're going to give it (the Stanley Cup) to them.' "



Defenseman Ken Daneyko had played in every Devils playoff game ever until last month. But he hasn't played so far in the finals, though there's always a chance Burns might dress him for Game 7 as a motivational tool - not just for Daneyko, but for his team.

Daneyko took part in the pregame warmups before Game 6, no doubt just to get on the ice again and share in the moment.



Except for the Stevens hit on Kariya, the finals have been mostly incident-free. Burns said that doesn't mean the series hasn't been emotional and intense.

"It's hate. It's hate," he said Sunday. "As a series goes on, teams start hating each other. I was almost hoping it would happen."

Burns said the dislike is caused by players making derogatory comments as they skate by the opposing bench or taking whacks at each other during faceoffs.

"A little hate out there makes for good competition," he said.

Kariya doesn't necessarily agree.

"Well, hate is a strong word," he said. "It's big-time competition and (when) it goes this long, there is going to be a lot more animosity than there is in a short series. But that's what playoff hockey is all about."



Because the teams have flown from one coast to the other four times in 10 days, off-day practices have been all but eliminated to keep players fresh.

The three games in Anaheim started at 5 p.m. local time, so the Devils also did away with one of the sport's ancient rituals, the morning skate. They do plan to skate Monday morning.



Five Devils players will be trying to win their third Stanley Cup with the team since 1995: Stevens, Daneyko, Sergei Brylin, Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer. All but Daneyko have played essential roles in the series for New Jersey. ... Burns can become the fifth coach to win a Stanley Cup in his second try after losing in his first trip to the finals. Burns lost with Montreal in 1989 against the Flames. Winning their second time around were: Jack Adams (Detroit); Dick Irvin (Toronto, then Chicago), Glen Sather (Edmonton) and Bob Johnson (Calgary, then Pittsburgh). ... Devils forward Joe Nieuwendyk, who won the Stanley Cup in 1989 with Calgary and in 1999 with Dallas, can become the sixth player to win with three different teams since 1927. Those who did it previously were Gord Pettinger, Al Arbour, Larry Hillman, Claude Lemieux and Mike Keane. Nieuwendyk (hip) hasn't played in the finals, and it's unlikely he will play Monday. He skated before Saturday night's game, but didn't feel he was ready to play and was scratched. He said Sunday night he doesn't foresee himself improving enough to play in Game 7. Burns said only that his status remains doubtful ... If New Jersey wins Monday, the home team will have won every game for the first time since 1965 and only the third time in finals history. The only other time was 1955.

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