Devils have plenty of room for improvement

PHILADELPHIA -- The New Jersey Devils traditionally have been a playoff monster for three reasons: excellent goaltending, stingy defense and timely scoring.

In the first two games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers -- both 3-2 losses -- the Devils have come up short in all three areas.

Suddenly silent Robert Esche -- who again looked like he was headed to the firing squad when he entered the dressing room to meet with the press after his second straight playoff win -- has been surprisingly better than the usually chatty and almost always sharp Martin Brodeur. In the key areas of the ice, the Flyers have been a little tighter defensively than the Devils. And Ken Hitchcock's troops are taking advantage of scoring chances, while Pat Burns' skaters can't seem find the loose pucks that Esche has left in the slot.

To make matters worse, the Devils are getting pushed around.

"We got out hit tonight," said Devils coach Pat Burns after Saturday's Game 2 loss. "When you get knocked on your ass enough times, I guess it becomes a factor."

Brodeur agreed: "They're playing extremely physical. They don't respect anybody, they're just going and hitting people. That's they way it is."

No doubt, the defending champs certainly miss the brute force provided by injured captain Scott Stevens. To a lesser degree, they also miss hard-hitting winger Grant Marshall, also sidelined by injury.

On home ice against a smaller team, the Flyers took some liberties in the first two games.

"When you play in a building like this (Wachovia Center) where the fans bring the fuel and fire, you get charged up," Brodeur said. "They're just taking advantage of their home ice."

The three-time Cup winning stopper wasn't thrilled with his own play, either.

"I haven't played my best game yet," said Brodeur, who allowed six goals on 44 shots in the two games. "I have to be better."

While Brodeur acknowledged his part, Burns pointed to the many squandered opportunities.

"We've had some good chances, but we haven't been able to finish anything around the net," he said. "On their side, they've scored some timely goals that probably hurt us more than anything else.

"We had some momentum going, we'd get a goal back, we'd tie it up and then, bang, they got the goal back.

Defensively, without Stevens and the retired Ken Daneyko, the Devils' defensive pairs don't have the balance they've enjoyed in previous playoff runs. Their top defensive pair in Games 1 and 2 has been Scott Niedermayer and rookie Paul Martin, who both can be classified as puck-moving defensemen.

Last year, the Devils had three puck-movers (Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Oleg Tverdovsky) to go with three stay-at-home types (Stevens, Daneyko and Colin White). During that Cup run, their top two pairs were Stevens-Rafalski and White-Niedermayer.

This spring, the club has just one physical defender (White) in the lineup on a consistent basis. That isn't good news against a big team like the Flyers.

Journeyman Sean Brown and rookie David Hale can play a physical game, but both were scratched for Game 2. That left Niedermayer, Rafalski, steady veteran Tommy Albelin and inexperienced, offensive-minded defensemen Paul Martin and Ray Giroux.

In Game 3, Burns might want to consider re-working his pairs. He could reunite Niedermayer and White. Then, he could slide the more physical Brown (a lefty shot, who played in Game 1) next to Rafalski. The final pair could be Martin and Albelin.

Whatever Burns decides to do, Niedermayer sees room for improvement.

"They can forecheck, but it's up to us to handle it," said Niedermayer, who has been wearing the "C" since Stevens left the lineup in early January. "We can get the breakouts to be smoother. I think a couple of times we got rid of it too early, putting it around the boards and making it tough on our forwards."

Ever the optimist, Brodeur believes his team can turn things around in Game 3.

"We haven't been outplayed," Brodeur said. "If we get a little better in some areas -- like power play and penalty killing -- we can get a win and put some doubt back into their heads."

Around the Hrink

  • Burns made two minor lineup changes in Game 2. He scratched center Viktor Kozlov and defenseman Sean Brown, replacing them with veterans Igor Larionov and Tommy Albelin. "We felt the experience of those two guys would help us," Burns said. On the other bench, Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock inserted center Patrick Sharp into his lineup, replacing suspended center Claude Lapointe.

  • The Flyers' second goal -- scored by Alexei Zhamnov -- was a strange one and never would have happened had Jeremy Roenick touched a puck he batted down with a high stick. By rule, if Roenick had played the puck under those circumstances, the play would have been whistled dead. Instead, Roenick skated alongside the puck, which was eventually played by Larionov, which negated the potential stoppage. Larionov's chip went to Flyers defenseman Kim Johnsson, who fired a cross-ice strike to left winger Tony Amonte. Amonte's shot from just inside the blue line went wide of the mark, but caromed off the end boards toward an onrushing Roenick, who pushed a shot toward Brodeur. As the Devils stopper tried to control Roenick's shot, Zhamnov charged the net and banged the loose puck behind Brodeur. So, should Larionov have played the loose puck (which accidentally led to the goal)? "Rule of thumb is to stand back and not touch it because the worst thing that can happen is a faceoff at that spot," Burns said. "But it's easy to say that when you're not in a situation. He probably saw something and was trying to make a play."

  • The Philly fans thought Roenick should have been awarded a penalty shot in the second period. On the play, with the Flyers down a man, Roenick broke clear from the pack with Niedermayer pursuing from behind. As Niedermayer got within stick's reach, Roenick tumbled to the ice without getting off a shot. The fans were outraged at the no call by referees Mick McGeough and Brad Meier. Upon further review, it was clear that Roenick fell without Niedermayer's assistance.

  • The refs also received a little heat from Devils right winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who took a costly elbowing penalty with 38 seconds remaining in regulation. Langenbrunner argued vehemently from the penalty box then slammed his helmet to the ground while exiting the bench area after the game. Burns didn't seem too happy with the call, either. Afterward, he wisely bit his tongue. "Don't talk to me about referee calls," Burns said. "I don't talk about them and I don't comment on them."

    EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.