DEVILS 4, Penguins 2

Wednesday, May 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ Almost two decades after leaving Colorado without an NHL team, the New Jersey Devils are going back to try to deprive the state of something else _ the Stanley Cup.

Shaking off some early postseason perils, the defending champion Devils advanced to the Cup final against the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night by beating Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2. New Jersey won the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final in five games.

``I think everyone wanted to see this matchup and now it's here,'' Devils center Scott Gomez said. ``We'll see what happens.''

The best-of-seven series against the Avalanche starts Saturday night in Denver, and the meeting of the teams that posted the best regular-season records in the Eastern and Western conferences has the potential of being a great one.

Start with the history. The Devils, formerly the Colorado Rockies, moved to New Jersey in May, 1982. Colorado didn't get another NHL team until the Quebec Nordiques moved there for the 1995-96 season, and they won the Cup in their first season. The Devils won their first Cup the previous season.

This year's final has even better story lines:

_The goaltenders. It's a matchup of the Devils' Martin Brodeur against his boyhood idol, Patrick Roy.

_The 22-year-quest of Ray Bourque of Colorado to win his first Cup, and the outside hope that Avalanche center Peter Forsberg will find a way to return despite having his spleen removed earlier this month.

_A matchup of two teams who overcame adversity in the playoffs.

After being inconsistent in eliminating Carolina in the first round, the Devils rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat Toronto in seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinal. They shifted into high gear in ending Lemieux's dream of another Cup, dominating the Penguins, even though their performance in Game 5 on Tuesday wasn't perfect.

Jason Arnott scored two goals and John Madden added an insurance tally early in the third period in what might have been the last time Lemieux and Jagr played on the same team.

Jagr, the league's leading scorer, expects to be traded because his $10 million salary is too high for the Penguins.

After sweeping Vancouver, the Avalanche were pushed to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals by the Los Angeles Kings. While they won Game 7, they lost Forsberg hours later when his spleen had to be removed after internal bleeding.

Surprisingly, the Avalanche knocked off the St. Louis Blues in five games in the Western Conference finals.

``That team played a lot better against St. Louis than I thought they would,'' Devils defenseman Sean O'Donnell said. ``It's more than one guy. Their third and fourth lines are great, their power play is clicking and Roy is standing on his head. They're a dangerous team.''

New Jersey had no problem with the Avalanche in the regular season, winning both games by a combined 12-4 score while knocking out Roy in each game.

``The regular season isn't always indicative of what's going to happen,'' said defenseman Ken Daneyko, who was drafted by the Devils in 1982 and has played in all their postseason games. ``It's nice to know we were able to put some pucks behind and that we skated well against them. But that's different. Playing a team once is nothing like facing them in a seven-game series.''

The Penguins found that out in the conference finals.

Pittsburgh won the season series with New Jersey 3-1-1, but rarely looked like it belonged on the same ice in this series, facing the Devils' tenacious neutral zone trap.

New Jersey outscored the Penguins 17-7, holding Lemieux and Jagr without a goal. Jagr didn't register a point, while Lemieux had three assists.

``I think that's a perfect model to compete for the Stanley Cup,'' Lemieux said. ``It's a great system they play. It's very simple. You just have to have an organization that is committed to playing it.''

The Devils found that commitment after rallying to beat Toronto.

``When this team wants to play hockey, we are tough to beat,'' Devils forward Randy McKay said.

O'Donnell, a late-season acquisition who was seen as one of the final pieces to this year's puzzle, said the Devils are one of the most self-driven teams he has seen.

``This team wants to play perfect hockey,'' O'Donnell said. ``We win 3-1 and we're mad. We want to win 5-1. That's the sign of a champion. That's why this team is going back.''

Notes: Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov scored for the Penguins ... Morozov's goal ended Brodeur's shutout streak of 151 minutes, 19 seconds ... Bobby Holik had the Devils' other goal ... New Jersey had lost three straight Game 5s _ all at home _ dating to last year's finals. ... Brian Rafalski added an assist, pushing his league-leading points total for defensemen to 15 (seven goals, eight assists). ... Kevin Stevens (knee, flu) and Robert Lang (muscle strain) were scratched from the Penguins' lineup.